Why the U.S. should continue development and increase funding for Internet Anti-Censorship Tools

12 11 2012

by Brian Thompson

Until earlier this week I never would have imagined that the U.S. State Department in conjunction with the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent U.S. government agency, of funding development on anti-censorship tools for the Internet [1].  According to an article in The Washington Post, “the United States spends about $30 million a year on Internet freedom, in effect funding an asymmetric proxy war against governments that spend billions to regulate the flow of information” [1]. The current administration is not trying to hide this from the world either; the program and its aims were brought up at a town hall meeting three years ago in Shanghai [1].

This policy and its implementation may alarm you.  According to Defensenews.com, as recently as Sept 21, 2012 “The White House is working with the Department of Homeland Security, FBI and others to develop an executive order to counter cyber security threats” [2].  Could this seemingly innocuous government program be tied to future national counter cyber security rules of engagement?  Based on my experience in the Intelligence field for the military and from what I’ve read it is not and any thoughts to the contrary are pure fantasy.

The next question you might be asking yourself is why are my tax dollars going to subvert foreign governments’ sovereign right to manage their own affairs?  Viewed another way, why does the U.S. government send billions of dollars in aid to foreign countries every year?  According to the global aid organization Oxfam, the U.S. spent $30.2 billion dollars or 0.21% of the 2010 budget in various forms of financial aid to foreign countries [3].

Some strategic reasons why the U.S. sends this aid are national security, national economic interests and, lastly, to demonstrate good moral leadership towards others [3].  To me, these reasons are very logical.  Too many times in the past, our country’s government and others have tried to influence events in other nations through the barrel of a gun.  In today’s world, everybody has a gun and the real power is in the expert use of “soft power.”  According to Harvard Kennedy School Professor Dr. Joseph Nye, who defined the concept as “co-opting people rather than coercing them,” soft power has been a tool of the military and statecraft in various forms for many years [4].  It is through the domain of cyberspace that this type of power can be leveraged for good and more importantly with no bloodshed.

The aim behind developing tools like Tor, Ultrasurf, DynaWeb and Freegate is to increase access to the open and expansive Internet to those living in countries with less restrictive Internet policies.  In the U.S., we take for granted immediate access to news, opinions, facts, art, literature, education and much more wherever we are.  While other countries, such as China, North Korea, and Iran who restrict and manipulate their citizens’ access to this global digital community to the extent that they don’t even know what or who to believe anymore.

Supporting Internet anti-censorship tools helps the United State’s national security policy and promotes public goodwill toward support of anti-censorship tools that breakup the building distrust of the U.S. to outside eyes.  Foreign nationals can see that the U.S. is not a threat to their way of life and that it stands ready to assist in helping their security through partnerships, not invasions.  It can also work internally as well.  By breaking through cracks in the censors, common Chinese citizens can organize and have a better understanding of the crimes their government seeks to suppress.

For example, in China, where the “Great Firewall,” as it is affectionately known, has near total control of the incoming and outgoing Internet traffic of not only its citizens, but all foreign companies that are based there [5].  The main component in China’s strategic control of the Internet inside its borders is called the Golden Shield Project [5].  While the U.S. has a tremendous amount of entry points for the Internet, “China’s Internet was designed with ready-made choke points; these are a tiny collection of fiber-optic cables entering the country at a limited number of points: Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou” [5].

By using monitoring software and hardware on these choke points, the government can then process all traffic via the Golden Shield network, and utilize extensive security techniques such as: DNS Blocking, Connection Resets, URL Keyword blocking and Site Scanning [5].  The final component in this grand strategy of China’s Internet censorship is of a human nature where they employ “at least 10,000 government paid censors and volunteers who search for offensive sites, delete posts and warn netizens of their web behavior.” [5]

From an economic perspective, China’s Great Firewall could possibly infringe on corporations proprietary and copyrighted material and in turn, manipulate the markets by passing sensitive information to state-controlled or backed competitors.  Anti-censorship tools wouldn’t accomplish much in preventing this, but it will go a long ways towards making the government more accountable when their citizens hear about the Communist Party’s anti-competitive ways in the business arena.

Just as security professionals in a modern corporation manage black and white listings through their firewall programs and hardware; China’s government performs the same operations except it is to stifle freedom of speech and dissemination of non-biased state-based news and information.  China’s official policy is that it performs these actions for the protection of its people and the Communist Party of China, but in actuality it oppresses their population by sowing mistrust of the outside world through disinformation of news from inside and outside the country [5,6].

Unfortunately, China is not the only country that distorts, in my mind, the tools that information security professionals use around the world to safeguard personal, physical and digital property.  Many other authoritarian regimes utilize firewalls, IPSs, IDSs and all manner of network attack, defense and exploitation operations to protect their leaders and regimes by sacrificing their people’s freedoms in cyberspace.

It is in the United State’s best interests of national security, national economic interests and good will from the American people to continually fund the development and dissemination of Internet anti-censorship tools.


1 http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/online-tools-to-skirt-internet-censorship-overwhelmed-by-demand/2012/10/21/390457a2-082d-11e2-858a-5311df86ab04_story.html?wpmk=MK0000200

2 http://www.defensenews.com/article/20120921/C4ISR01/309210002/White-House-DHS-FBI-Drafting-Executive-Order-Cybersecurity

3 http://www.oxfamamerica.org/files/foreign-aid-101-revised-edition.pdf

4 http://www.wordspy.com/words/softpower.asp

5 http://digitrends.proferochina.com/index.php/lp/behind-the-great-firewall-of-china/

6 http://www.wired.com/politics/security/magazine/15-11/ff_chinafirewall?currentPage=all&utm_source=Contextly&utm_medium=RelatedLinks&utm_campaign=Previous

7 http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/news/international/countriesandterritories/china/internet_censorship/index.html




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