BY KATRINA LANTOS SWETT, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR - 05/17/18 01:00 PM EDT
There is growing recognition that internet freedom has become an indispensable human right of the 21st century. This new reality has created an urgent need to update America's strategy for informing and engaging the world in support of freedom and democracy by bringing it into the internet era. Congress has responded to that challenge by appropriating $50 million annually to fund internet freedom and firewall circumvention technologies. Sadly, the agencies charged with fulfilling this mission have not done their jobs.
Recently, I had the opportunity to testify before congressional leaders about this issue. I warned that the continued failure of the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the independent federal agency that oversees Voice of America and similar programs, to properly spend the $50 million on funding internet access risked leaving millions of people in closed societies locked behind a dangerous digital curtain. My fellow witness, Sarah Cook, senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House, similarly expressed concerns that the supply of circumvention technologies is not meeting the demand in critical moments of crisis.
That scenario unfolded this year during the mass popular protests in Iran. In an effort to quell the uprising, the Iranian government blocked access to the internet. Unfortunately, because the BBG had earlier cut off all funding to some of the most effective circumvention technologies, our country's ability to help provide access to the outside world for those brave Iranians was greatly limited. This was an inexcusable dereliction of duty.
Now, once again, history is repeating itself. As attempts to access the internet from Iran are surging, because of Iran's decision to block the popular mobile app Telegram, as well as recent developments regarding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, some of the most potent and proven circumvention technologies - those that the BBG has failed to fund - are facing the risk of crashing because of ramped-up demand. These underfunded systems are struggling to cope with the millions of users who seek to use their tools, all while the BBG and the State Department sit on millions of dollars of undistributed grant money.
It is a grim vindication that, less than two weeks after my testimony, the warnings that were sounded are being realized.
It has been nearly a year since the BBG cut off funding for some of these key technologies with no credible explanation for its actions. We will never know how many millions of people were deprived of access to the truth about their own societies and the world beyond. Free, unfettered access to information and news is fundamental to a citizenry's ability to hold their government accountable. Ironically, because the BBG and the State Department are not doing their jobs in fulfilling Congress' intent vis-a-vis the use of internet freedom funding, our nation's efforts to help people in places such as China, Cuba and Iran are being significantly undercut.
As a consequence of inexplicable bureaucratic intransigence, we are facing a situation where a barn is burning down, a hose is available, hooked up and ready to put out the fire but, for reasons that no one can comprehend, a government bureaucrat is saying, "We're not ready to turn it on yet." Shame on them! The time has come to turn on the hose, to put out the fire, to spend the money that our government rightly has appropriated for this purpose.
These are critical moments for internal politics in Iran and China, as well as in their relationship with the United States. For the sake of the people in these countries seeking to access and share uncensored information, as well as for the United States' own strategic interests, it's vitally important to ensure that supply can meet the demand for circumvention tools at this key moment. The people in Iran and China are seeking out tools that are effective for them in addition to or instead of tools the BBG is currently funding; they should not have to pay the price for bureaucratic foot-dragging.
It is time for the BBG and the State Department to do their jobs and help to tear down these walls by funding the brave dissident innovators who have created the powerful technology tools that help their fellow dissidents struggling behind the digital curtains that mimic the "Iron Curtain" of another era. It is long past time for the excuses, delays, obfuscation and denials of the D.C. bureaucrats to come to an end.
The BBG has a rapid-response mechanism for moments of crisis precisely because it can have particularly important, immediate and long-term implications for people in key countries such as Iran and China, as well as U.S. interests there. The BBG can immediately initiate an urgent, compelling procurement for these tools through its Office of Internet Freedom and seek the needed approval of its chief procurement officer.
Alternatively, and with quicker effect, the BBG's CEO, John Lansing, has the direct authority to initiate and carry out this rapid-response system. It might change the course of events on the ground and even save lives. We call on him to do so.
Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett is president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, established in 2008 to continue the legacy of her father, the late Congressman Tom Lantos. She is the former chair and vice chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and teaches Human Rights and American Foreign Policy at Tufts University. She currently serves as board co-chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and the Budapest-based Tom Lantos Institute.