Friday New Tools Feature: Who Will Guard the Guards?

The internet continues to become an increasingly important part of many people's lives - there have been several studies showing that many people would rather give up sex than internet access, and with each day more of our communications, media consumption, and commerce are conducted online. And we have seen in Iran these last few weeks just how important the internet has become for political organizing and citizen journalism.

But as our lives become increasingly digitized, a number of fundamental questions are being raised. Who owns the internet? Who polices it? What constitutes acceptable or unacceptable behavior on the web? Many internet users are accustomed to thinking of it as a free and open communal place, something which seems integral to the very nature of the net itself. Yet there is no law guaranteeing this, and companies and governments have increasingly sophisticated ways of monitoring and controlling internet traffic.

A cyber war is being now waged, fortress walls now replaced with firewalls. China's hacking of U.S. agencies and companies is well-known, as is its strict censorship of internet content within its own borders. China even went so far as to crack down on Google this week, perhaps as a reaction to their perceived role in prolonging unrest in Iran. This despite the fact that Google has already made considerable concessions to China, removing a huge amount of political and pornographic content from their Chinese service.

The United States supposedly advocates freedom of speech on the internet, and we have invested millions of dollars in Iran over the last few years in technologies designed to circumvent the state's censorship efforts:

“Our goal was to promote freedom of speech for Iranians to communicate with each other and the outside world. We funded and supported innovative technologies to allow them to do this via the Internet, cell phones and other media,” former State Department Iran democracy program coordinator David Denehy tells Eli Lake of the Washington Times.

Forget the driven-by-DC mock-populism and the all-too-clever schemes; this is how America should be promoting democracy abroad. Give activists the tools — and then let them decide how and when to use ‘em.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees the Voice of America and the Farsi-language Radio Farda, has a three-person anti-censorship team that focuses on China and Iran. “Iran has a growing audience of young activist Internet users and we have repurposed our tools to work in Farsi and make it available to Iranians,” BBG’s Ken Berman says. “We open up the channels so the Iranian blogosphere is more accessible to Iranians in Iran.”

However, there are questions about the U.S. Government's commitment in this space: FOIA requests have unearthed an incredible amount of abuses of spying powers at the NSA and the FBI, among others. And the front-runner for Obama's Cyber Security Czar, Tom Davis, is no champion of online rights. From a Wired profile of the former GOP Congressman: examination of Davis’ record in Congress shows that he’s been on the wrong side of key privacy issues, including the controversial REAL ID Act, which aims to turn state driver’s licenses into a de facto national identification card linked by shared databases and strict federal authentication standards.

“Given his role in REAL ID, Tom Davis would not be a good choice for privacy, which is something that President Obama specifically promised to protect in his remarks on the cyber security strategy,” says Jim Harper, the director of information policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. “Many cyber security planners refer obliquely to ‘authentication’ and ‘identity management’ programs that would devastate privacy, anonymity and civil liberties. Davis would probably work to roll past these issues rather than solve them.”


In announcing the creation of the new position last month, Obama stressed that privacy was key to the government’s cyber security efforts. But Davis’ most notable action on privacy was his failed attempt to undo a measure that put a chief privacy officer in every major government agency.

The ACLU’s legislative scorecard on Davis shows he disagrees with that group on many privacy matters.

For instance, he voted consistently to give the government wide latitude to wiretap the internet and spy on Americans’ communications. That program, including the NSA’s massive database of emails known as “Pinwale,” made news recently again when The New York Times reported that the NSA examined Americans’ domestic e-mails without authority.