Post Classifieds

How should the US use the internet to spread democracy?

By Theodore Terpstra
On April 24, 2014

Recently, the Associated Press reported the existence of a US-funded Twitter-like website designed for Cubans. Named Zunzuneo, the site operated for two years before funding evaporated in 2012. At its height, Zunzuneo had 40,000 Cuban users, who typically discussed sports or popular music. The most surprising detail was that USAID ran Zunzuneo as if it was a covert program. Zunzuneo was funded through shell corporations in an effort to hide US involvement, leaving many to think that such a program would have been run by the CIA rather than USAID. Indeed, USAID is supposed to coordinate its actions with host governments, and for many officials, the Zunzuneo affair leaves a bad taste in their mouths. What is often forgotten is exactly how successful Zunzuneo was: 40,000 Cubans were able to "tweet" without censorship. USAID officials worried that these recent revelations will hurt USAID's efforts all around the world. Now there is also concern that this incident will discourage the United States from using the Internet to help activists and dissidents in oppressed countries connect with one another. The best course for the United States would be to stop directly or indirectly funding shadow networks, like Zunzuneo, and instead create open source tools for dissidents in other countries to use themselves.
As the NSA worked to crack the firewalls of the Internet and look into the private lives of people from all around the world, the US State Department worked to get activists in oppressed countries a secure and free Internet. The State Department began the project three years ago, utilizing a system called mesh networking. A mesh network is isolated from the open internet that you or I would visit. Here's how it works: First, routers are placed on rooftops, or any high spot nearby. The routers must have a clear line of sight to at least one other router. Then the mesh software, called "Commotion," is set up. Lastly, a local server can also be set up to store a library of digital books, or create a mini-Wikipedia. The mesh network can also have a large or small range depending on the situation. A mesh network could service a neighborhood, for example, or a city of 14,000. A mesh network is more secure than the World Wide Web, but it is not completely impervious to spying. In very oppressive countries, it may be difficult to hide the web of routers which are an essential part of a mesh network.
Currently the mesh networks have been successfully used in Tunisia, along with several other countries. While government organizations are funding the development of mesh network software, the same organizations as also funding the deployment of mesh networks overseas. It would be less risky for the United States, if the software and instructions were made open source, while funding for deployment ceased. USAID currently plans to spend $4.3 million to set up a mesh network in Cuba. That money can be saved; there are Cubans willing to create mesh networks themselves if the tools were made available. The network is simple to set up, and the routers are cheap so the cost of a mesh network is low. The greatest difficulty would be smuggling the routers and other equipment into Cuba. It's a challenging task, but not impossible.
Before the Internet, dissident Cubans depended on radios to gather news and talk with one another. Radio stations in Florida connected exiled Cubans with their associates back in Cuba, forming an underground network. Now the technology exists to continuously connect all the dissident academics, activists, and artists within one area. Information can be exchanged faster than ever before, while users can be protected from government snooping. Events like the Arab Spring have shown us how deeply the internet, or connectivity in general, can impact movements for social or political change. By making this technology freely available, the United States would do more to advance democracy than if we had directly funded its implementation in other nations.  


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