The most interesting question President Obama fielded in China came over the Internet, via the U.S. Embassy, from a Chinese citizen who asked, "Do you know of the firewall? Should we be able to use Twitter freely?" In response, Mr. Obama, speaking at a town hall in Shanghai, did not directly address China's massive Internet censorship operation -- "the firewall" -- and he confessed that he does not use Twitter. But he said, "I'm a big supporter of not restricting Internet use, Internet access, other information technologies like Twitter."
No doubt that's correct. And, just as likely, Mr. Obama is not aware that his State Department not only is doing next to nothing to support Internet freedom in countries such as China, but that it also has been slow-walking congressional initiatives to do so.
For two years Congress has appropriated funds to support groups that are developing ways to circumvent the Chinese firewall and those erected in Iran, Burma, Cuba and other repressive countries. The most prominent of the groups, the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, says it has the capacity to host 1.5 million users daily. Its technology works: Shiyu Zhou, the deputy director of the consortium, testified to the U.S. Helsinki Commission last month that at the height of opposition protests on June 20, more than 1 million Iranians used the system. He said that with $30 million of additional funding, capacity could be increased to 50 million users a day, making it "prohibitively expensive for any repressive government to counter our efforts."
A bipartisan coalition that includes Sens. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) has been trying to channel the necessary funding. A total of $20 million has been included in the past two State Department budgets, and $30 million more is pending in the Senate's version of the 2010 budget. But State hasn't passed the money on to the firewall-busters. Instead it gave the lion's share of its 2008 appropriation to a group that specializes in conducting media studies and training journalists, and it has failed to distribute the 2009 funds, even though the fiscal year ended nearly three weeks ago. The department says it is increasing the staff dedicated to working on Internet freedom issues and that it is funding some "implementing partners" that it won't identify.
Still, no money is going to the one organization with a proven record of overcoming firewalls. The group's advocates suspect that that's because the Global Internet Freedom Consortium is identified with China's banned Falun Gong movement -- and State is fearful of Beijing's reaction to any U.S. support for it. The Obama administration has already done plenty to appease the Chinese regime. The least it can do is act on the president's own words about the value of free information -- and help give Chinese their chance to Twitter.
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Senator Ben Cardin meets with ODIHR Director Michael Georg Link. (Sept 2014)