Commentary Magazine


Bypassing Internet Censorship in China, Iran, and Syria

Last month, I had the opportunity to have a crash course in a number of cutting edge technologies which enable people in repressed societies to bypass firewalls, surf the internet, and access information in the most repressed societies. Some of these companies—Ultrasurf, for example—enable people to do this without downloading any computer programs or, indeed, leaving traces of their activity on any computer which the police can check. I saw, in real time, as thousands of Iranians, Syrians, Vietnamese, and Chinese accessed censored news sites, Facebook, and other social media.

While the State Department is willing to waste millions of dollars subsidizing Palestinian terrorists, gay and lesbian film festivals, and news agencies dedicated to undermining U.S. foreign policy, it seems remarkably resistant to assisting groups dedicated to empowering people in repressive societies access the internet.

While Ultrasurf users access hundreds of millions of websites per day, they are constrained by server capacity in the United States. A relative paltry sum of $10 million can not only provide servers to support anti-censorship efforts, but also forces governments like China and Iran to spend billions of dollars in efforts to maintain their own censorship and firewalls. That’s not a bad return on the money. So why hasn’t the State Department supported such efforts?

Two reasons: First, when Congress has provided money to the State Department for this very purpose, they have left enough wiggle room for the State Department to divert the money and, second, because the State Department is afraid that helping ordinary citizens access the internet would antagonize China and Iran. Here, the State Department has it backwards: When China and Iran complain about U.S. efforts to promote freedom, it’s not a bad thing. Rather, it’s a sign that we’re on the right track and are having an effect.