It was the hashtag heard around the world — #jan25, the date of Egypt’s first major protest that became the Facebook and tweet symbol for the historic rally in Tahrir Square.
The political shockwaves of those messages reverberated well beyond Egypt, to Middle East nations and as far away as Washington, where Congress and industry advocates were already grappling with how to nurture freedom on the Web and respond to countries that crack down on Internet expression.
But the high-profile Internet blackout that briefly enveloped Egypt has served only to illuminate the challenges Congress faces in promoting Internet freedom worldwide. Lawmakers have invested in technologies aimed at circumventing online censorship by governments bent on silencing dissent. Certainly, that has wide support. But many tech stakeholders feel Congress risks being distracted from the bigger Internet policy picture, one that has implications for human rights, cybersecurity and commerce.
“Internet freedom is an issue that has rightly captured the support of a large [number] of people on Capitol Hill,” said Richard Fontaine, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, of Congress and the State Department’s work. “They put money behind their wishes, which is a rare thing sometimes, but it is like anything else: The hard part is when you get to implement this ... and how you navigate the tensions.”
Middle East leaders are also confronting new Internet challenges, albeit with polar-opposite goals. That was on display in January, when state authorities shuttered the Internet for days and initially detained Google marketer Wael Ghonim, who launched the now-famous Facebook page that helped catalyze protests and force President Hosni Mubarak to step down.
The actions of the Egyptian government are elements of a larger pattern of countries filtering access to key Internet services in a quest to contain the power of the Web, experts say.
YouTube has gone dark at times in Brazil, Syria, Iran and Turkey, according to the OpenNet Initiative, which tracks Internet filtering worldwide. It’s hard to make Facebook friends in Vietnam, where the network has long been blocked. And it’s almost impossible to scale the so-called Great Firewall in China, which blocks many sites from its citizens.
But as Washington moves to strengthen the Internet freedom movement, Congress has yet to find its voice.
The House and Senate each created Global Internet Freedom caucuses last year — after what some thought was a
Twitter revolution in Iran — but the coalitions have experienced significant political difficulty.
The Senate’s effort collided with electoral politics last year when co-founding Sens. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) retired. A Senate source told POLITICO this week that Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) hopes to resurrect the caucus soon.
The House has fared marginally better. The leading Democrat on the chamber’s Global Internet Freedom Caucus, Oregon Rep. David Wu, has held meetings with tech companies such as Google and Cisco over the past year. But he’s been distracted by questions about his mental health and odd behavior, including sending photos of himself in a tiger costume to staff.
His GOP counterpart, New Jersey Rep. Chris Smith, is continuing to work on the Global Online Freedom Act, which he introduced in 2006. The proposal has undergone a major transformation since its debut, but even the most recent iteration of the bill in 2010 sparked concern among tech industry stakeholders.
Smith’s legislation last year proposed the creation of an Office of Global Internet Freedom housed within the State Department. His bill bans Web companies from storing any personally identifiable information in countries designated as Internet restricting and requires firms to notify the attorney general whenever foreign governments requested such information.
Smith’s bill got some attention in the past two Congresses but never made it to the floor. He intends to reintroduce a slightly revised version of the legislation soon.
That’s not to say Internet freedom hasn’t risen to the level of congressional leadership: Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is a strong advocate for protecting free expression on the Web.
Durbin also has repeatedly hammered Facebook for failing to join the Global Network Initiative, a coalition of countries, nonprofits and academics advocating Internet freedom.
“I am concerned that the company does not have adequate safeguards in place to protect human rights and avoid being exploited by repressive governments,” Durbin wrote Facebook in February, urging it to join GNI.
Lawmakers have made some progress on assisting in the development of Internet censorship circumvention technology or tools that bust through the blockades China and other countries have erected around sites and services deemed politically or socially sensitive.
Washington has also relaxed some rules that allow for Web communication technologies to be exported to countries in which Web filtering remains profligate. At the same time, lawmakers have provided about $50 million since 2008 to the State Department for Internet censorship circumvention — although some complain that about $30 million of that allocation remains unspent.
A senior official at the State Department stressed in an interview with POLITICO last week that the department is spending carefully to diversify the technologies it supports and accommodate dissidents’ needs. The department is also boosting grants to developers that create mobile and Web technologies that facilitate free expression.
But that hasn’t quieted criticism. The Senate Foreign Affairs Committee’s Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) is calling on the State Department to turn over control of that program to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which directs U.S. government broadcasting through Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.
“Our international broadcast services are working every day to counter Internet censorship and should be the primary drivers in U.S. government efforts to develop and implement Internet censorship circumvention technology,” Lugar said last month.
Some tech advocates are growing wary of the congressional emphasis on Internet censorship circumvention, warning that it is drawing attention away from other important issues — such as what role Internet freedom should play in trade policy and whether Congress even has a part to play in protecting Internet freedom abroad.
“Circumvention tech is a part of pursuing global Internet freedom, but I think it’s foolish to think somehow providing work-arounds to activists is the be-all and end-all to our policy goals,” said Leslie Harris, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology.
But one top Hill aide told POLITICO that circumvention is probably one of the few points of bipartisanship “and bicameral support.”
In addition, experts question whether Congress can even legislate its way to Internet freedom. The Internet changes too rapidly for lawmakers to set any rules of the road for companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Google, which operate in countries such as China, they argue.
Some, though, would prefer Congress adopt a “do-no-evil” approach — avoiding restrictions on government intervention in areas such as surveillance and copyright enforcement, which would set an example for the world.
“How do you legislate freedom? You can’t force it through legislation,” said Ed Black, president and CEO of & Computer and Communication Industry Association. “There’s no law you can pass — but you can lead by example.”