The CCP is one of the world’s leaders in Internet censorship. According to David Feith in the Wall Street Journal, the Chinese regime uses more than 40,000 censors in a dozen government agencies to limit web content via the “Great Firewall” of China. “Just as East Germans diminished Soviet legitimacy by escaping across Checkpoint Charlie, ‘hacktivists’ today do the same by breaching Internet cyberwalls,” says Feith.
Falun Gong’s GIF, accessible to Internet users worldwide, has been invaluable to dissidents in such countries as Burma, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Vietnam, and Iran. During Iran’s Green Revolution, demonstrators had more contact with the outside world because of GIF. They so flooded GIF’s servers to access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other sites, that on June 22, 2009 the consortium had to temporarily block usage in order to keep the system from crashing.
Devastated Iranians sent thousands of messages to GIF, pleading for restoration of the service. “Technically, to us, Iranian people, web means Freegate, Ultrasurf. . . Please hear us. Don’t let freedom die. Don’t let hope fade away. And let people be informed, connected and empowered,” one message entreated. GIF worked nonstop to resume services to Iran after midnight the same day, but without resource-consuming video services. They then received many requests from Iran for YouTube services to post videos about the crackdown. So the GIF team again worked tirelessly and resumed YouTube and some other video services early the next morning. According to Feith, during the protests of June 20, 2009 alone, more than one million Iranians used GIF to visit 390 million pages on the uncensored Internet.
In July of the same year, the U.S. Senate’s State Department/Foreign Appropriations Subcommittee approved $30 million for Internet freedom activities. With additional (U.S. made) servers, GIF swiftly could increase its capacity to 50 million users per day and would never have to block usage as they had done during the Green Revolution. Sadly, although the State Department received the $30 million from Congress in October 2009, it has not released the funds for these purposes.
Commenting on this in the Washington Post on April 5, 2011, Anne Applebaum revealed that a State Department official told her that the department “lacked technical expertise and had been forced to reorganize itself to ‘unify the policy’ before issuing a call for proposals.” Applebaum added that there may be other, “darker motives: weakness, cowardice, anxiety in not wanting to displease the governments that create firewalls — especially the Chinese government.” Even in the unlikely case that those darker motives do not exist, the State Department is drowning a simple solution to circumventing Internet censorship in the murky waters of government bureaucracy.
The New York Times on June 12, 2011 reported in glowing terms on the State Department’s internet freedom activities. But Horowitz, an advisor to GIF, says that the Times story “glamorizes black box stuff, ignores present, real world possibilities for mass circumvention of closed society Internet firewalls and applauds an R & D approach to Internet freedom that, at best, won’t/can’t be operational for years.” He and other activists continue to urge the U.S. government to support the extremely efficient and already successful work of groups like GIF rather than, literally, reinvent the Internet.
Another of the Iranian freedom fighters of 2009 wrote poignantly to GIF, “If it was not for flicker, twitter, facebook and simply email nobody would have known what is happening in Iran. . . . If not for internet these events would have been 1000 times uglier and more brutal. . . . Let the citizens of the world know you as freedom heroes.”
Sometimes “freedom heroes” never intended to fight, only to cultivate daily the virtues of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance like the followers of Falun Gong. But the CCP brought the fight to them, and now they are on the frontlines of a battle for freedom not just for China, but for victims of repressive governments all over the world.
Faith J. H. McDonnell directs The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan, and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).
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