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State Department Funds Shadow Internet Networks to Protect Free Speech Rights

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WASHINGTON, June 13, 2011 – The U.S. State Department has acknowledged funding the establishment of independent “shadow” internet and cell-phone networks in countries with oppressive regimes, according to a Sunday New York Times article.

The effort is part of a broader “liberation technology movement” critical in the recent popular uprisings such as those in China, Iran, Egypt, Libya and Syria – the more recent events are commonly referred to as the “Arab Spring.” The liberation technology refers to the use of information technology to expand political, social, and economic freedom.

In countries like Iran, Libya and Syria these shadow networks and technologies would allow activists to communicate with each other and the rest of the world despite government censorship to prohibit such activity.

According to New York Times sources, one such project, an “Internet in a suitcase,” is being developed by New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative, a nonpartisan nonprofit, with the help of a $2 million State Department grant.

The suitcase uses off-the-shelf equipment readily available in various parts of the world, open source software technologies and Wi-Fi to allow users to communicate on the Internet without a central hub.

“Because we chose Wi-Fi as a platform, the software can run on a variety of devices,” said Josh King, a technologist with New America Foundation in an interview with Al Jazeera. “It won’t take an engineer with a computer science degree to be able to deploy it somewhere.”

The news comes days after U.N. Special Rapporteur Frank La Reux released a report that declared government restriction of internet access to be a violation of human rights.

The representatives from the State Department were not available for comment at the time of the publication.

Josh Peterson is a DC-based journalist with a professional writing portfolio that includes work on US foreign policy and international affairs, telecom policy and cyber security, religion, arts, and music. He is currently a journalism intern at The National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C. and a former tech and social media intern at The Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies & Citizenship. Peterson received his Bachelor of Arts in philosophy and religion with a minor concentration in music from Hillsdale College in 2008. When he is not writing, Peterson lives a double life as a web designer, social media strategist, photographer, musician and mixed martial artist.

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