April 29, 2011; Source: Bloomberg Businessweek | To aid Middle Eastern activists in their fight against their repressive governments, the U.S. State Department is underwriting both training and tools to ensure that protest leaders make maximum use of the Internet in their freedom campaigns.
According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the State Dept. is currently readying $28 million in grants to teach and equip protest leaders, who rely on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social networking tools, to outwit or stay hidden from security forces who also are growing more skilled at using "social media and sophisticated technologies to track and infiltrate dissident groups," a development Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner calls "repression 2.0."
Businessweek reports that this latest package of support is in addition to the $22 million in "internet freedom grants" the State Department already has awarded. One recipient, MobileActive.org, a New York-based nonprofit used its grant to "build a 'panic button' that allows activists, if arrested or pursued, to send a text message to a group of contacts in a way that doesn't show up on the phone's call log."
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As generous as the State Department intends to be, not everyone wants its money or agrees with how it's being disbursed. For instance, some worry that money could be awarded to groups outside the U.S. that haven't been properly vetted. As BusinessWeek notes, they might "quietly take U.S. funding and then denounce America."
The State Department also has come under criticism from Republicans who say funds aren't being distributed quickly enough or that some of the money previously appropriated for training should be used instead to support the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which runs Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America.
State Department officials argue that BBG's efforts to bring people to sites such as Persian News Network could actually hurt protest groups in some countries because of their overt ties to America. Some activists, like Hisham Almiraat, a Moroccan blogger based in France, won't take part in U.S. sponsored training because he says, "The State Department is the diplomatic arm of the U.S, government. They have an agenda. We don't need that in our work. We can train ourselves."—Bruce Trachtenberg