Background Briefing by Senior State Department Officials on Internet Freedom Programs

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Washington, DC
June 15, 2011

MODERATOR: Hi, guys. This is Courtney from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. In just a minute, we’re going to bring [Senior State Department Official One] in, but I just wanted to quickly make sure that everybody knew that this was a backgrounder, and if you have any follow-up questions or are interested in further information, you can contact either me or Evan Owen in DRL, and we’ll be happy to help you out. But anyway, I’d like to now introduce [Senior State Department Official One], who will be talking about internet freedom and will take (inaudible).

QUESTION: So how do you want us to attribute him on –?

MODERATOR: A State Department Official.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Very Senior State Department – (laughter). Hi everyone. Thanks for joining us on the phone. So first of all, we haven’t gathered you here today to serve warmed over leftovers from The New York Times story that happened on Sunday. But it did strike us that that story was an opportunity because, well, it kind of highlighted some of the kind of sexy tech stuff that people have been – the eye – the shiny object of that the eyes have been captured by lately. Nobody has really yet kind of captured the bigger picture in our view, which is that this isn’t, in the first instance, about cloak and dagger, and it isn’t about James Bond, and it isn’t about stealthy things.

This is about the simple reality that governments that are respecting the rights of their peoples have nothing to fear in free speech. Governments that are respecting universal human rights have no reason to fear a free internet. And on the flip side, what we – the various actions that we see governments taking, and the actions that we’re trying to help people respond to are the losing battle, the fool’s errand that the Secretary referred to in terms of dealing with the reality that the advent of these modern communications technologies means that nothing can be swept under the rug anymore, that there’s – it’s long been a kind of tagline of anti-corruption programs, et cetera, that sunshine is the best disinfectant. Well, these technologies seem to be the best amplifier of sunshine in many ways. And that’s something that governments are having to reckon with, and we shouldn’t see this, for that reason, what we – the way that we’re going about it is looking at the people, the people on the ground in these places who are trying to make their voices heard, trying to call out problems, trying to suggest solutions and responding to them and responding to the challenges they face.

And so no one piece of technical support is, in and of itself, a solution. We’re taking – it’s not a James Bond approach, it’s a techie-without-borders approach, and it’s being the roadside assistance on the info superhighway in a place where there are a lot of threats. And I think that we’re excited about a number of new investments that we’re making. We have a – what we – we take a kind of venture capital approach to the programming in this space, and we’re thrilled with some of the things that are under development, some of the things that are being deployed. And we’re conscious of the fact that this is probably the edgiest, most kind of entrepreneurial kind of programming in the U.S. Government and that it’s on the cutting edge of technology and on the cutting edge of history. I mean, this is – we’re watching the need for this kind of support play out in real time as we look across the Middle East.

But again, the need is not one particular piece of technology or one silver bullet. The need is to be responsive to the ongoing challenges of people who are trying to call out the problems in their societies and give voice to their own future. There’s a – I was reading a story about a Sudanese blogger this week, earlier this week, who was recounting that during the elections somebody had posted a YouTube video of a ballot box being stuffed. And the National Election Commission, when it found it, said that they wouldn’t investigate anything that was posted on the internet, and then shortly thereafter YouTube was shut down. And he pointed out instead of investigating the problem of ballot box stuffing they investigate the people who are pointing out the problem. And perhaps that’s predictable, but it isn’t sustainable. And it hasn’t worked for Mubarak, and it hasn’t worked for Qadhafi, and it’s unlikely to work for Asad, and there are others who eventually will have to deal with either the stark choice of giving people the space to have a role in crafting their own futures or the lack of sustainability of their present model.

So I’ll stop there and I’m happy to respond to questions.

QUESTION: First – Rosalind Jordan with Al Jazeera English – before we get into the story and the new investments that you say the Department is making, let’s go back two years ago. Was this inspired in any way by what we saw happening in Iran after the presidential election and the call from the State Department to Twitter, please don’t do your Saturday night maintenance because people are using this as a way of communicating to each other?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I would go back even farther. I mean, I think I would go back to --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: -- a couple things. One, I think if you go forward to this spring, there was – there were a number of breathless stories about look at the role that technology played, look at the role – in the year 2011, it would be amazing to have a story about human events where technology didn’t play a role. I mean, the – that would be the more amazing story. But if you go back 10, 15 years, as people were grappling with the role that the internet in particular was going to play in our lives writ large, but particularly in repressive environments and difficult political environments – Bill Clinton famously said that the Chinese trying to limit the internet was like nailing Jell-O to a wall.

Now, arguably, in the kind of early years of the last decade of the 2000s, the nailing Jell-O seemed to be more successful than one might have predicted. Although ultimately, I think we – I think that’s likely to be the case, that, ultimately, it won’t be a sustainable way of managing the internet. So, I mean, I date this evolution as starting further back. I think that as historic events have played out, and including the elections in Iran, we’ve been – become more conscious of the ways in which the story of human rights in the 21st century is a story that involves the internet, that often plays out on the internet, that people are exercising their human rights online, and we’ve become more conscious of the various ways that repressive regimes are using technology themselves to limit and punish people for the exercise of those rights.

And our job – one of our jobs is to keep the broader picture in mind, keep focused on people, keep responding to people on the ground, and to stay ahead of the curve in terms of the innovations of repression, so that we can help people on the ground be innovating their expression at the same time.

QUESTION: What’s the – where is the line between providing avenues to people so that they can exercise their right to free expression and trying to shape what they’re saying to each other?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Totally fair question and one that’s been debated. For me, the line is clear. I mean, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is about a right to say – I mean, the freedom of expression that is guaranteed to people is about a right to speak, a right to express yourself. It is content-neutral. And we are conscious of the fact that however particular the unique situations around the world, it seems fairly consistent when people are free to speak, the things they speak about are the kinds of societies they want to live in, and they speak about concepts of fairness, and they’re not – and justice and what – how things should be run and managed, et cetera, and those things that seem to be common elements. That’s not because we tell people to talk about it; it’s because that’s what – when you’re given a chance to speak about what you want in your life, that’s what people talk about.

But I think there is a line, and I think our – we are guided by the principle – the universal principles of human rights, and that people should have the right to come together to associate around a cause, that people should be able to peacefully demonstrate, that people should be able to speak their mind and it’s not about dictating what’s on their mind, but about a universal right to speak one’s mind.

QUESTION: Since you mentioned China, I work for – my name is (inaudible), I work for Asahi Shimbun, the Japanese newspaper. And one of the first things that came to mind reading that New York Times article was, well, China probably won’t be happy, and I was just wondering why that newspaper article didn’t mention China at all. And so could you speak a little bit about how you could be using this technology in cooperation with some dissidents in China, or are you not comfortable discussing that at this point?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So, I mean, I think – it’s not clear to me that without giving too – no, I’m not terribly comfortable discussing the specifics of how it gets used. But there are a range of technologies, like I said, that are either in development or being developed, and that’s because there are a range of threats that people are facing. One of the threats that we’ve seen most recently, particularly in the Middle East, is shutdowns. And so this is kind of a – the – what you read about in the Times, one of – is one piece of the portfolio among many, and it’s kind of a backup battery for when the shutdown occurs.

I think that there are different threats in different environments. Obviously, within the context of China, one of the things that has been most written about is the firewall and censorship, and then that’s a different kind of internet freedom threat. And so we’re – like I said, we’re trying to respond to the way that – the ways that these problems manifest themselves in different contexts and our portfolio reflects that.

QUESTION: Any specifics you can talk about?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I mean, we have publicly said that we support over a dozen different kinds of circumvention technology, which would be technology that gets around firewalls. But I would also note that there are plenty of circumvention methods, et cetera, not necessarily even technologies, that are – that people come up with themselves. I mean, frankly, it’s a testimony to the non-sustainability – I mean, I believe that our efforts amplify and make and give people on the ground, empower people on the ground, and that they are helping. But I also believe that people will find a way to speak, and we don’t have to do it all. There – and frankly, some of the best – some of our most successful programming leverages the ideas that come from people in one environment and that are things that should be tested and be shared with fellow activists or bloggers and another one.

QUESTION: Have other governments pushed back in any way in light of the Times story and of the State Department’s embracing of this strategy?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I mean, I think – I suspect that there are governments that wished that we weren’t investing in this way. The Secretary has made it clear that internet freedom is a priority of hers and of the Administration. She’s talked publicly multiple times about these investments. This is clearly a priority, and it’s not one that we apologize for. This is about universal rights that are the obligation of every state, and again, governments that are respecting those rights have nothing to fear in a free internet.

QUESTION: But no one has sent a cable people or made a phone call and said we are uncomfortable with this, we don’t like this, this is going to jeopardize our relationship with Washington? There hasn’t been anything of that sort this week?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I haven’t had a specific outreach this week. I mean, I’ve – over the course of my time in the State Department, I have heard expressions of concern, but this week, no.

QUESTION: Is the State Department concerned that this technology could be used in ways (inaudible)? What is the downside? These all seem like positive things from your standpoint. Are there concerns that this could be used not in a positive way in terms of the State Department looking at it? And it’s Catherine Chomiak with NBC.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think technology itself is neither good nor bad, and the whole – the big picture of this problem is about the fact that it can be used to exercise rights or it can be used to limit rights, and certainly one of the things that we would think about in making investments is any downside risks.

I don’t claim that they’re – they are zero. But one of the things that we hope is that by responding to people on the ground and by not starting – there’s two views to look at this. One is kind of what cool things can we do with technology, which is kind of the image that you get from some of the writing about it, is that it – this is actually just about gizmos and gadgets. And the other is what I would call a kind of consumer-based view from my private sector life of what are the challenges that people are facing on the ground today, how do we respond to those challenges. And to the extent that we’re tailoring our efforts to those challenges on the ground, my hope is that obviously the equation works out on the positive side.

QUESTION: How much money is the State Department spending on this? And are you able to say since the beginning of the Obama Administration how much was spent in Fiscal ‘10, Fiscal ‘11, what’s proposed for ’12?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So over the last three fiscal years, we have spent a total of $50 million. That counts the round of grants that was notified to the Hill last month. And by the end of this year, we’ll spend an additional 20, so there will be a total of – in the coming months, there will be a total of 70 million.

QUESTION: And when you say by the end of this year, it’s by the end of this fiscal year or by the end of this calendar year?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Certainly by the end of this calendar year. I mean, in the coming months.

QUESTION: Okay. I wanted to ask a little more about some of the downsides, as Catherine raised. Has the State Department or has the U.S. Government overall gotten any feedback from people, particularly in the Middle East, but perhaps in Southeast Asia where there have been some political strife as well, notably in Thailand, as well as in Burma, about what’s working and what’s not working? What could possibly be putting people at risk if they are using these technologies? What’s the feedback you’re getting?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, we – I mean, there’s a team of folks who work on this in DRL, who work on these programs, and one of the things – and this is part of my portfolio; it’s not a hundred percent – but I also make an effort to make sure that I’m getting out there that we’re really tapped in. But one of the things I’m, frankly, most proud of is the way that this team, which is not a typical group of State Department employees, I mean, that – we refer – I mean, many of our partners on the outside refer to themselves as geeks with a conscience or whatever, but we have our own geeks of the conscience inside. And they have been, for the last couple of years since we started, really deeply embedded in the community of people who – bloggers and activists who are using technology, et cetera, around the world.

And so we get out into the field. We do talk with people. We talk with people about how things are working. We find out that one technology works really well in a particular context, but on a dial-up modem, it doesn’t work so well. And so we – one of the things that we’ve kind of – a big shift in the portfolio since this work started is when this work started, it was largely about circumventing on a PC.

But if you look at – if you were to look at a map of global internet penetration and global mobile phone penetration, particularly in hostile internet environments, mobile phone penetration is many times 10s of percentages higher than internet penetration. And so one of the things increasingly over the last couple cycles of grants is that we’ve been looking at ways to make sure that we are the kind of tech support that we give, both technology itself and training, is addressing the fact that many people are using mobile phones to communicate and that even though we might think about the internet as a desktop or laptop phenomenon, for many people, it’s a pocket phenomenon.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We’ll make an effort to speak up. The question – the last question was about how we make the selection, how we award the grants. They are publicly – they are awarded based on public criteria, so they’re awarded at the direction of Congress. They’re awarded through a competitive process. And we put out a solicitation that gives the – both the areas of work that we’re interested in hearing ideas in, as well as the criteria by which proposals will be evaluated. And then we have an interagency committee that includes technical experts as well as experts in the particular geographies to the extent that they’re necessary to evaluate the proposals on the merit. So –

QUESTION: How do you choose – let’s say there’s a group in Syria who wants to have this kind of communication technology. How do you go about choosing them? How do you decide who to support within a given country? (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Who to support within a given country? I mean, to be honest, it doesn’t usually come to that kind of question. And this goes back to the kind of – are you choosing a message or are you choosing a medium? And I mean, the commitment – I mean, our goal is to make sure that we are doing what we can to amplify the voices and create the space for free expression and freedom of association and assembly online regardless of who the group is.

QUESTION: You don’t want terrorists. So you’d have to draw a line somewhere, I suppose.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: By law we can’t – obviously, by law we are restricted in our funding and we have to do some vetting to make sure that it’s not a terrorist --

QUESTION: So you do some screening. You would have some kind of screening.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: As with any U.S. Government grant program, we do have some screening in that regard. But there is no – so there is a negative screen. There is no positive kind of screen in terms of who are we trying to support in country X.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Could we give you just one example about what the circumvention technology that might help you?


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Like for example – [Senior State Department Official One], you can correct me on the technicals – we have a circumvention technology, say that there was one that funded the development, and we found out it was very popular in Iran and translated into other languages, including Arabic, and we’ve seen that technology has spread around the Arab world, and it’s being used and it will be translated into other languages. So it might be – if when you say are you picking your technology, I mean, this something you can put on your computer so that you wouldn’t – you would not be seen, right? You would be able to go over a firewall. But that again, people who are English speakers can use that in any country. And it’s not just that we distribute it. They also give it to each other.

And one of the big components that [Senior State Department Official One] can talk about more is training programs, one of the things that the State Department has funded and I guess it’s less James Bond-y, but his training programs for digital activists, democracy activists, human rights people who come to training programs and who learn how to use these tools safely. So for example, we ran one over the winter –


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Sorry. We ran one of these programs over the winter and one of the bloggers who came who had been very active in – sorry. So one blogger who came who’d been active in – it was a Tunisian and he’d been active before the revolution before Ben Ali left. And when he got to the training program, the trainer looked at his laptop and found out that he had scores of viruses on his laptop, including one that was key logger software, and it was sending back every single stroke he typed. And so a training program – the only way you’re going to find that out is really through a training program and spreading information.

And back to also what [Senior State Department Official One] said about mobile phones, there’s been a myth that if you send an SMS, it’s safe and no one can track you, but if you send an email, that can be monitored. And that’s just not true. So it would be helpful, actually, if you guys would spread that message, because I think it’s a misconception. And that’s why [Senior State Department Official One] said that some of the things that we’re funding are mobile communications to make mobile communications safe and so that people can send secure text messages or can do other things, because, again, they’re not sitting at their desktops, but they also don’t necessarily have the proper information about how to use these tools safely.

QUESTION: Are there questions on the phone that maybe people want to ask?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. Do people on the phone have questions? (No response.) Is there anybody left on the phone, or did they get frustrated and throw in the towel?

QUESTION: There are a couple of us, but I’m not really sure what other people have asked, so –

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, feel free to – we don’t mind repeating. I apologize that you couldn’t hear.

QUESTION: That’s okay. I know there was a China question, actually, and I was hoping to hear parts of that, but I didn’t hear much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We don’t mind repeating anything but that.

QUESTION: I’m sorry?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I said we don’t mind repeating anything but that. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Well, great.


QUESTION: Well, I mean, I know that they were just asking about how you’ve used these specifically, and I know you can’t talk about the programs in specific countries. But on a broad basis with countries that you do have significant ties but then you also have significant areas of disagreement, how do you make sure that that doesn’t impede your relationship? I mean, I’m talking specifically about China, but if you could speak on that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I mean, it is not any – again, it’s no secret, frankly, to the Chinese that we have serious questions about their management of the internet. We have made that clear publicly. The Secretary has made it clear publicly in both of her major speeches on the topic of internet freedom. We have – it is an issue that we have raised with them privately and repeatedly.

So they know it’s an issue of concern for us. And again, I mean, I think we do talk to people who are operating in China, but this is not in the main of – this is not a program about one country. These are things that we are seeing around the world in various places in different forms, but that we’re trying to respond to and we’re trying to respond to in a way that amplifies the peaceful expression of people on the ground. So I mean, I don’t think there’s anything secret about where we stand.

QUESTION: Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Are there other questions on the phone? Feel free to interject. Are there other questions in the room? (Inaudible.) – (laughter).

QUESTION: Sure. Could you go a little bit more into the training programs?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Sure. The question in the room is about training programs. I call this our kind of cyber self-defense part of our portfolio, or digital hygiene sometimes. The training programs can sound dull and kind of ho-hum, but they really – these end up being the place where technology and kind of the being able to ask questions and do demos, et cetera, that those are really important. And as [Senior State Department Official Two] was saying, we’ve had heard feedback of specific examples of people who have – whose computers have been found to be loaded with viruses, et cetera.

But I think part of it is that if you think about this problem of empowering people on the ground as – it’s almost like an epidemiological problem. I mean, you don’t just need a drug to combat HIV/AIDS. You need a way of getting people on the ground the training to prevent infection when you – once you have a solution, you need to train people how to use the solution. They need to know when to use it, when not to use it, what the risks are, et cetera. So there’s a broader value chain. This is – again, it’s not a one-size-fit-all solution, and there are a number of pieces to the puzzle. So [Senior State Department Official Two] talked about, one of the things about the training sessions – and we’ve trained over 5,000 activists around the world -- one of the things about these training sessions is that they end up being what I would call kind of these underground railroads to distribute not only technology, but also know-how.

I mean, people need to know this information in this space to get a – (inaudible), and they say a rumor starts that tool X actually goes straight to the government. Obviously, it not only impacts the utility of tool X, which you may have invested in developing or whatever, but it also creates the kind of distrust that undermines the broader kind of willingness to speak up and get your voice out there. At the same time, you want to make sure that people don’t get the sense that tool X is completely foolproof and you can do whatever you want and go ahead and post pictures on Facebook and that kind of thing either. So these training sessions are really important for helping people understand exactly what risks remain and what risks can be addressed.

QUESTION: Are these training programs done all here in Washington or are they done regionally to try to be where people are?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We try to be where people are so that they’re not here in Washington. Obviously, in some contexts, it’s more challenging than others. So oftentimes, they’re done regionally in a place where people can get to. And then one of the things is, in some cases, we’re training people who are the kind of tech person within whatever community it is they’re in and it’s the expectation that, again, that they kind of become the hubs of these underground railroads of trust for distributing the know-how and the tools when they go back. Any other questions?

MODERATOR: I guess that concludes it.


MODERATOR: Thanks so much.

QUESTION: Thank you.


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PRN: 2011/970