As the unfolding events in Iran show, the most important tool for those who want to fight for their freedom is access to the Internet. Facebook, Twitter, email and other Internet services help people organize protests, and give them access to a weapon even more powerful than bullets: information. If President Obama and Congress want to spread freedom throughout the world, the best thing they can do is support the so-called Internet freedom initiative, which would give $50 million for censor-busting technologies like proxy servers.
Nicholas Kristof, in his New York Times op ed column "Tear Down this Cyberwall!, describes how Iranians have been using software developed by Chinese dissidents to access sites that have been blocked by the Iranian government.
The software, called Freegate, is anti-censorship software that allows users to access overseas web sites as fast as they can access local ones --- and it hides who is using the software. In other words, if you live in a country that blocks access to Internet sites such as Twitter and Facebook, you can use the software to get to those sites, and no one will know you're using it.
As Kristof points out, Freegate was originally written to defeat Chinese Internet censorship, and was only available in English and Chinese. But then in July, a Farsi-language version was created.
The software was written by the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, and according to Kristof:
usage of the consortium's software has tripled in the last week. It set a record on Wednesday of more than 200 million hits from Iran, representing more than 400,000 people.
Here's the problem, though: The proxy servers that power Freegate are starting to become overloaded. And government officials around the world are looking at ways to block Freegate and similar anti-censorship technologies.
Kristof has a simple answer:
If President Obama wants to support democratic movements on a shoestring, he should support an "Internet freedom initiative" pending in Congress. This would include $50 million in the appropriations bill for these censorship-evasion technologies. The 21st-century equivalent of the Berlin wall is a cyberbarrier, and we can help puncture it.
Kristof is right. Congress should immediately pass the bill, and Obama should sign it into law. Information and access can trump weapons and governments if given the chance. We should help it along the way.
Update: If you're looking for details about the software and tools that Iranians are using to beat Internet censorship, read my blog, "Four ways Iranians are beating Internet censorship."