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Attack the Cyberwalls!: The Internet Is the Pathway to Democracy in Places Like Iran

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The Iranian election crisis is being fought in the reaches of cyberspace as well as the streets of Tehran. Those without power or arms are dictating the flow of events -- and to some extent -- strategy through the power of the Internet.

Their weapons include YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and other forms of real-time Internet communication. Tiananmen Square survivor and Internet activist Yang Jianli writes that cyber warfare "is undermining the world's dictatorships and opening a fast lane to democracy."

Authoritarian governments like those in Iran, China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are fighting back with aggressive blocking and filtering systems that often use Western technology. Companies such as Google, Wikipedia and Yahoo have accepted government censorship of their in-country Web sites, in effect neutralizing the Internet's democratic promise.

The United States must fight fire with fire in finding ways to breach these cyberwalls, which dictatorships use to control their people and keep themselves in power. Tearing down these walls can match the effect of what happened when the Berlin Wall was torn down. No one understands this better than the dictator states.

First of all, American companies that have abetted repressive regimes in censoring information must reexamine their relationships and ways of doing business. At a minimum, they should stop providing products or services that will be used to restrict information. Above all, they must refrain from turning cyber dissidents over to governments. If companies fail to take these steps, Congress is likely to mandate them.

Secondly, the government in its approach to cyber warfare must elevate efforts to promote Internet access into a more active tool of foreign policy. Congress recognized this when it declared that "ensuring the freedom of Internet communications in dictatorships and autocracies throughout the world is a high and critical national interest priority of the United States." The Iranian crisis and China's efforts to "purify" the Internet have lent urgency to the cause.

Third, Congress needs to make sure that funds to promote Internet freedom go to organizations with proven track records in enabling large numbers of users to breach the most sophisticated and repressive Internet firewalls operated by closed society regimes. In the past two years Congress has spent $20 million on Internet access. A bill I am sponsoring would raise that to $50 million in the new fiscal year.

A number of organizations have developed software that can be used to bypass the most sophisticated Internet restrictions. The most prominent is the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, creators of the software used by Iranians to communicate both internally and with the outside world during the election crisis. The Consortium also developed ways around China's efforts to censor the Internet, neutralizing its so-called "Golden Shield" and "Green Dam" barriers.

Another non-profit group of anti-censorship activists offers free software to send messages secretly or to reach blocked Web sites. A third program, developed by political scientists at the University of Toronto, allows anyone to evade Internet firewalls using a Web browser.

The walls used by 21st century tyrannies to isolate and control their citizens are increasingly electronic rather than physical barriers. American interests and values will be powerfully advanced in finding ways to breach those walls. Imagine a president of the United States able to interactively communicate with any group in the world -- safely and anonymously for the persons listening and responding to him; or residents of closed societies able to access Western Web sites and communicate safely when their regime initiates political crackdowns or seeks to cover up internal scandals.

The technology to achieve this capability exists now and can be implemented today for a cost that is insignificant compared to the promise of advancing American interests or securing freedom for so many.