US Seeks ‘Shadow’ Internet, Mobile Networks in Repressive Countries

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This is the VOA Special English Technology Report.

The Obama administration is leading an effort to deploy what some people call liberation technology in repressive countries. The New York Times reported last week that these efforts include "shadow" Internet and mobile phone systems. These are secret networks designed to operate independently of a government's control.

Dissidents in the Middle East, North Africa and other countries are increasingly using the Internet, social media and mobile phones. Some governments have taken steps to block or spy on their communications.

Officials in Egypt shut down Internet connections in February in a failed attempt to stop democracy protests. The Syrian government took similar action earlier this month.

The Obama administration is seeking to provide other ways for activists to communicate with less risk that they might be caught.

Ken Berman is the director of information security at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the parent agency of Voice of America.

KEN BERMAN: "The State Department was looking to allow, I’ll say, cyber dissidents, cyber activists, to communicate among themselves and to do that in a restricted environment. They are looking at ways to set up, you might say, these independent networks.”

The New York Times reported that one of these projects is known as "Internet in a suitcase." The idea is to put equipment in a suitcase that could be secretly transported across a border. Then it could be used to quickly establish a wireless Internet connection over a wide area.

Another project seeks to avoid Taliban interference with cellphone networks in Afghanistan by using towers on American bases.

VOA has its own anti-censorship programs, led by Ken Berman.

KEN BERMAN: “So what we’re trying to do is give tools to allow people in countries that have hostile regimes to circumvent, to go around, the blockage or the filtering that their own governments do.”

During a speech in February Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Internet freedom “one of the grand challenges of our time.” The State Department says its efforts are aimed at supporting free speech and human rights, not overthrowing governments.

Ken Berman says whether or not these two things can be separated is a source of continuing debate.

KEN BERMAN: “An educated population is what I think these tools strive for. Whether that will lead to government change, whether that will lead to internal reform, it depends on the country. There are so many dynamics in play in so many different countries, it’s hard to know what effect open information has.”

And that's the VOA Special English Technology Report, written by June Simms. We’ll have more on this story next week. We'll look at Iran’s plan to build its own national internet, disconnected from the rest of the world. Our programs are online at voaspecialenglish.com. I'm Steve Ember.

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