U.S. Combats Internet Censorship Abroad, Internet Now Comes in Suitcase
The U.S. State Department is leading efforts to combat internet censorship abroad with “shadow” Internet and phone systems.
Dissidents can use these systems to “undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks,” reports the New York Times. These efforts have gained momentum in the face of the Egyptian Internet shutdown during the last days of President Hosni Mubarak’s leadership as well as recent internet censorship in Syria.
At the forefront of this program is a $50 million campaign to create an independent cellphone network in Afghanistan to combat the Taliban’s ability to shut down official services by using cell towers on protected military bases.
Also included is a cutting-edge program to create what is being called “Internet in a suitcase.” Leading these efforts is Sascha Meinrath, leader of the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation. The four-man State Department operation runs out of an anonymous building on L Street in Washington. Included among the young contractors involved in the project are a former barista and an accomplished hacker. The “Internet in a suitcase” project employs “mesh network” technology which uses devices like personal computers and cellphones as makeshift cell towers to create a decentralized wireless Internet that bypasses the official network. The project is financed by a $2 million State Department grant.
Additionally, Iranian ex-patriate Mehdi Yahyanejad is slated to receive State Department funding for a project that modifies Bluetooth technology so that files could be sent automatically via cellphone to groups of people within a trusted network. While the project would be more limited than the more complex “Internet in a suitcase,” the only hardware necessary would be ordinary cell phones.
All this comes while domestic internet censorship remains a threatening possibility.
On May 26 the Protect IP Act unanimously passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, just two weeks after being introduced. A hold was placed on the bill by Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), but pro-censorship legislators are not likely to give up. The proposed bill grew out of the scrapped Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, also held by Wyden. The Protect IP Act would essentially give the Justice Department the right to shut down offending domains within the U.S. by demanding that they stop rendering DNS for their site, and copyright holders would have the right to gain court orders preventing online ad services and credit card companies from partnering with websites they claim to be in violation of copyright law.
If those legislators who wish to censor the internet in the name of “anti-piracy” are successful, we may all need “Internet in a suitcase” in the near future.
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