US to fund Internet activism in authoritarian countries

Move seeks to empower activists to create change in their home countries; State Dept. notes Internet's presence in Arab uprisings.

Moroccan women holding Facebook signs at protest 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Moroccan women holding Facebook signs at protest 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is set to disburse more than $25 million to facilitate Internet use for activists whose governments prevent such access.
The aid comes as opposition protesters in countries such as Syria and Iran try to use such technology to communicate – despite heavy government reprisals and disruption of their online organizing.
RELATED:Rights group: Bahrain arrests Internet activistsIBA's Arabic Internet site attracts readers across Mideast
“This administration believes that democratic change must be home-grown. That means empowering democratic activists to get their own messages out – and they need Internet freedom to do that,” Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner told The Jerusalem Post.
State Department officials declined to delineate precisely which groups – including the countries in which they’re located – would receive the American grants, or the dates they would be rolled out. The money is expected to help develop technologies that activists can use to circumvent government control of the Internet.
“The US government has spent billions over decades trying to promote democracy – but the best way to do that is to support democracy activists and give them the tools they need to prevail. Allowing them to use the Internet freely means they can continue to give voice to the kind of democratic future they want for their own societies,” Posner said.
The move was welcomed by human-rights activists, including Human Rights First, which issued a statement praising the overture on Wednesday.
The group called the funding “an important step toward protecting the fundamental rights of activists working in nations that deny or censor access to the Internet, and target those who use this resource in their human rights work.”
The congressional reception has been more lukewarm, with concern among Republicans about how the money will be used and how effective it will be – particularly given the party’s focus on trimming budgets in light of the large federal deficit and the faltering American economy.
Capitol Hill aides said they had been briefed by the State Department on the subject, as debate on the issue moved forward.
The Obama administration is not the first group to funnel money towards opposition groups for technology and other components that activists can use to challenge their regimes.
The George W. Bush administration devoted even more resources to this effort, and a WikiLeaks document revealed last week highlighted support for Syrian opposition groups.
According to documents first reported by The Washington Post, the opposition Movement for Justice and Development, established by Syrian exiles in London, has received about $6m. since 2006, some of it used to help fund an anti-regime television channel.
Though critics of the Obama administration have charged that it has not done enough to continue to bolster such groups in a sustained way, Syria expert David Schenker said the Bushera funds had a limited impact.
“My sense was that [the funding] was relatively low, and we had a hard time spending it because everybody we gave money to went to jail,” he said. “The assistance the US provided was limited, not for lack of trying. It’s very difficult to provide money to groups in that atmosphere.”
Schenker said he was pleased to see the new funds targeted for Internet access, but suggested that their effect in Syria would likely be contained.
“I think helping people to circumvent the activity of authoritarian governments to control the flow of information is a good thing,” he said. “There’s great potential there, and I’m glad to see there’s some funding – but Syria’s not an Internet revolution. This is not a panacea.”