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U.S. government spearheads efforts to dodge Internet censorship

The U.S. government is leading an international effort to distribute “shadow” Internet and cell phone systems that dissidents can use to counter repressive regimes that aims to silence them by censoring or shutting down vital telecommunications networks.

The effort includes secret projects to assemble independent mobile phone networks inside said countries, as well as one covert operation in a fifth-floor shop on L Street in Washington, D.C., where a group of scraggly-looking young men are fitting deceptively innocent-looking computer hardware into a prototype “Internet in a suitcase.”

Backed with a US$2 million State Department grant, the suitcase could be smuggled across a border and rapidly set up to allow wireless communication over a wide area with a link to the Internet.

Some of the projects involve technology that the U.S. is developing; while others pull together tools that have already been made by hackers in a so-called liberation-technology movement spreading across the globe.

Project members said the U.S. State Department is funding the development of stealth wireless networks that would help activists to communicate outside the reach of governments in countries like Iran, Syria and Libya.

In one of the most ambitious efforts, U.S. government officials said, the State Department and Pentagon have spent at least US$50 million to develop an independent cellphone network in Afghanistan using cell towers on protected military bases inside the country. It is aimed to offset the Taliban’s unhindered ability to shut down the official Afghan services.

The effort gained momentum since President Hosni Mubarak shut down Egypt’s Internet access in the last days of his rule. Recently, the Syrian government also temporarily disabled much of that country’s Internet access, which had aided protesters to mobilize.

Washington’s plan could be seen as a new front in a longstanding diplomatic push to protect free speech and cultivate democracy. For years, the U.S. has sent radio broadcasts into autocratic countries through the Voice of America broadcast and other traditional means. More recently, the U.S. government has supported software development that hides the online identity of users in places like China, and training for citizens who want to send information along the government-owned Internet access without getting caught.

But the latest moves depend on building entirely separate channels for communication. It has brought together an unusual alliance of diplomats and military engineers, young computer programmers and dissidents from at least ten countries, many of whom describe the innovative approach as more clever than before.

However, developers warned that independent networks come with some downsides: repressive governments could use surveillance to track and arrest activists who use the secretive technology or simply catch them transporting hardware across the border.

But others believe that the benefits outweigh the risks. “We are going to create a separate infrastructure where it’s nearly impossible to shut down, to control,” according to Sascha Meinrath, who chairs the “Internet in a suitcase” project as director of the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group. “This disempowers central authorities from trampling on people’s fundamental human right to communicate,” Meinrath said.

Malik Ibrahim Sahad, the son of Libyan dissidents who largely grew up in the U.S., said he was tapping into the Internet using a commercial satellite connection in rebel stronghold Benghazi. “Internet is in dire need here. The Libyan people are cut off in that respect,” said Sahad, who had never been to Libya before the uprising and is now working in support of the rebel leaders. Even so, he added, “I don’t think this revolution could have taken place without the existence of the Internet.”