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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Juxtaposing US Internet Policies: Surveillance vs. Encouragement

The New York Times reports on the apparent tension that emerges when one considers the U.S. government's approach to Internet freedom in repressive states in contrast to the NSA's broad surveillance programs:

A group of academics and computer enthusiasts who took part in the 2011 uprising in Tunisia that overthrew a government deeply invested in digital surveillance have helped their town become a test case for an alternative: a physically separate, local network made up of cleverly programmed antennas scattered about on rooftops.
The State Department provided $2.8 million to a team of American hackers, community activists and software geeks to develop the system, called a mesh network, as a way for dissidents abroad to communicate more freely and securely than they can on the open Internet. One target that is sure to start debate is Cuba; the United States Agency for International Development has pledged $4.3 million to create mesh networks there. 
. . . 
“Exactly at the time that the N.S.A. was developing the technology that Snowden has disclosed, the State Department was funding some of the most powerful digital tools to protect freedom of expression around the world,” said Ben Scott, a former State Department official who supported the financing and is now at a Berlin policy nonprofit, the New Responsibilities Foundation. “It is in my mind one of the great, unreported ironies of the first Obama administration.”
The article provides an interesting discussion of the United States' efforts to promote social networking and internet freedom on order to facilitate communication in countries where internet access is heavily restricted and monitored. The discussion of mesh networks is particularly detailed and interesting, and shows how these networks may be an effective, resilient way for people to access the internet. The article concludes:

Resilience could become the prime argument for mesh networks, with privacy as a bonus, said Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law and computer science at Harvard and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. That is similar to the original Internet, before it was controlled by corporate hands and scoured by government spies, he said. 
“It makes mesh more like the Internet than the Internet,” he said.

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