Last Tuesday 215,646 Internet users in Iran evaded their regime to visit sites such as Facebook, Twitter and RadioFarda.com, the U.S.-funded Persian-language news service. In Syria, 14,886 people freely surfed; in Vietnam, 10,612; in Saudi Arabia, 14,691; in China, 18,000.
I know this because I saw the internal logs of a company called UltraReach, which created and manages a firewall-breaching system that is allowing as many as half a million people a day to visit Web sites banned by their governments, and circumvent or avoid detection. To watch the traffic stream through the company’s servers is to see a parade of the world’s most oppressed people. In the few minutes I watched I also saw Cubans, Burmese, Uzbeks, Belarusians, Algerians, Cambodians and Libyans traveling via an Internet link to Northern California, where they were able to visit any non-pornographic site without being blocked or identified.
That the technology created by UltraReach and an affiliated company called Freegate works is not a matter of debate. Its success has been recognized from the State Department to the Chinese government, which has devoted enormous resources to trying to defeat it, so far unsuccessfully. The question is what is to be done. The companies’ volunteer founders and operators say that if they could get $30 million in funding they could ramp up their server networks to accommodate millions more users — and effectively destroy the Internet controls of Iran and most other dictatorships.
Since 2007, a few in Congress have been trying to get that funding by putting earmarks into the State Department budget — a total of $50 million so far. Yet the firewall-busting firms, which have formed an entity called the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, have yet to receive a dime. In fact, $35 million of the funds has yet to be spent, even though it was included in State’s budgets for 2009 and 2010.
You’d think State would be eager to act. After all, Hillary Clinton gave a major speech last January saying that the promotion of Internet freedom would be a top priority. Her senior aide for human rights and democracy, Assistant Secretary Michael Posner, says that defeating Internet censorship could be “a game-changer” in countries like Iran.