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US gov funds censorship-busting tech alternatives to Wikileaks

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The US State Department, still reeling from its own battle with the online activists of Wikileaks, is nevertheless offering cash grants for technology to circumvent internet censorship by the Chinese and Iranian governments.

The call for applications follows a high-profile speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a year ago, in which she warned that "nations that censor the internet should understand that our government is committed to helping promote internet freedom".

With the State Department putting its money where her mouth is, grants of between $500,000 and $8m are on offer this year, from a total pot of $30m.

As well as counter-censorship technologies, officials are seeking projects that will develop "technologies, techniques, and training to enhance the security of mobile communications" for activists. In regions where advocacy groups and civil society are under threat, "digital saftey training" programmes will be backed, as will campaigns for internet law reform and a rapid response fund for groups under immediate government pressure because of their online activism.

"On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does," said Clinton last year.

"We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world's information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it."

In China for example, the internet is heavily censored against pro-democracy material and banned religious beliefs. Beijing demands powers of surveillance over internet infrastructure that Western firms, including Google, have found objectionable.

The US government's multi-million dollar offering this week to counter such measures is not entirely unprecedented. Clinton last year boasted that her department was already supporting internet freedom projects in 40 countries, and the Tor Project, probably the best-known online counter-surveillance technology, was originally funded by the US Office of Naval Research.

Wikileaks supporters have seized on the State Department's grant offering as evidence of hypocrisy. The US government reacted with fury when the site last year published frontline intelligence reports and diplomatic cables, which had been allegedly supplied by Bradley Manning, a low-level Army intelligence specialist.

Yet a criticism levelled at Wikileaks, including by former insiders, has highlighted its focus on releasing US government documents. The secrets of the more malign, undemocratic regimes targeted by the State Department's grants are ignored in favour of aggravating Washington with dumps of unsurprising - yet classified - material, it's charged.

Julian Assange, who has repeatedly complained that Wikileaks volunteers have been stopped and searched at US airports, would have far greater reason for concern had they been detained by Chinese, Russian or Iranian authorities, Wikileaks' critics point out.

In response, Assange has said in interviews that Russian and Chinese leaks will be published in future.

Full details of the State Department grant programme are here. ®

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