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U.S. Eyes Global Internet Freedoms

The State Department's point person on human rights says his office is in a "cat and mouse" game with authoritarian governments that are trying to restrict free speech on the Internet.

"We are trying to stay ahead of the curve and to provide technology, training and diplomatic support to allow people to freely express their views," Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner told a group of reporters at the State Department this week.

Internet freedoms will be one focus on this year's Human Rights report, which the State Department is releasing Friday.

Training Activists

Posner's office says the State Department has trained about 5,000 activists on new technology and spent $22 million on ways to help them get around government firewalls in places such as China and Iran.

The State Department is finalizing plans to spend another $28 million on new technology to protect websites from denial of service attacks, ensure privacy in text messages and develop a so-called panic button, which activists can use to quickly wipe clean their cell phone contact list if they are arrested by authorities.

"When somebody gets arrested in Syria, there have been hundreds of arrests, the governments grabs the phone and looks at your list of contacts," Posner says. "So one of the things we are doing is working with young technology types to figure out how do you erase the list before they get their hands on it."

Egypt And The Internet

Esraa Abdel Fattah didn't have that when she was detained in Egypt three years ago. Known as the Facebook girl, she is a co-founder of the April 6th movement, one of the groups that organized protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak's regime.

Abdel Fattah, who was in Washington this week, told NPR that she's still pushing to keep the Internet open in her country as one way to ensure that the revolution there stays on track.

"We need to continue using these tools for campaigning, for reaching people and for discussions with people in a very fast way," she says.

Abdel Fattah is not only trying to communicate with Egyptians but says she's often on Facebook and Twitter to exchange views with other activists in the region.

"Now we have connections people from Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and we try to exchange experiences between each other," she says.

'Obsessed With Control'

In an interview in the office of Human Rights First, the organization that hosted her in Washington, Abdel Fattah said she's hoping to form a political party in Egypt and possibly run for Parliament. The main way the U.S. can help, she says, is to insist on the rule of law, including in the field of communications.

Posner discussed that with her this week.

"The fact is the [Egyptian] government shut down the Internet in 24 hours, so one of the things we talked about is can you as a matter of state policy start to allow more Internet providers direct access into the country so it becomes more difficult for a future government to shut things down," Posner said.

Posner says he's both optimistic and somewhat anxious about Egypt these days. More broadly, he's worried that many governments around the world are "obsessed with control," spending millions of dollars on technology to crack down on dissent. He says he thinks his job is to make sure activists can get the technology they need to protect themselves and to fight back.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.