Saturday, March 12, 2011

U.S. funding tech firms that help Mideast dissidents evade government censors

Several technology organizations provide mechanisms to circumvent firewalls and gain access to Internet sites that are blocked by governments. These organizations are reporting huge increases in the number of people using their tools in the Arab states that are undergoing political upheaval.

The Washington Post has a great article on how the US government provides funding and support for organizations that develop technology and provide support to people who want free access to the Internet. Here are a few excerpts from the article:

The Obama administration may not be lending arms to dissidents in the Middle East, but it is offering aid in another critical way: helping them surf the Web anonymously as they seek to overthrow their government.

Federal agencies - such as the State Department, the Defense Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors - have been funding a handful of technology firms that allow people to get online without being tracked or to visit news or social media sites that governments have blocked. Many of these little-known organizations - such as the Tor Project and UltraReach- are unabashedly supportive of the activists in the Middle East.

The technology that is now taking off in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya through word of mouth began as tools of digital disobedience elsewhere. In general, these programs work by redirecting users' Web traffic to servers outside their country. That makes it more difficult to identify the users while giving them access to blocked sites.

"What began as an effort to tear down firewalls in China has become something with extraordinary potential throughout the world," said Michael Horowitz, a Reagan administration official who serves as an adviser to UltraReach. "When UltraReach started getting hits in Egypt, the company had no idea how the people there found out about it. But they feel like they can't cut them off now - the company feels like it has a responsibility. But for every dollar that gets spent by companies like UltraReach, there's $10,000 spent by the governments to protect the firewalls."

Federal agencies have funded these companies through grants and contracts. By late spring, the State Department is expected to begin doling out even more money - about $30 million - to technology firms and human rights groups to help and train people to shatter firewalls and surf the Web without being tracked.

The Tor Project, a nonprofit organization that gets money from the State and Defense departments, has seen far more people use its product during the Middle East uprisings. The number of daily sessions jumped from 250 in December to about 2500 in February in Egypt, from 500 to about 900 in Tunisia and from 25 to nearly 300 in Libya.

This is a Suspicious News Brief. Read more at the Washington Post

You can help provide open and free access to the Internet by running a Tor relay on your home computer and donating some of your bandwidth to help the Tor network grow. To learn more check out the Tor Project web site.
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