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Defending Free Speech With a 'Panic Button'

Thousands of people marched in Istanbul in May to protest an Internet filtering plan by the Turkish government
Thousands of people marched in Istanbul in May to protest an Internet filtering plan by the Turkish government

This is the VOA Special English Technology Report.

We reported last week on projects by the Obama administration to increase Internet freedom around the world. Alec Ross, a senior adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, recently discussed these efforts with VOA's Persian News Network.

ALEC ROSS: “We’re now in a moment of time where it’s increasingly the case that the government is trying to stifle what their people think, what their people say and what content they access. And so we’re spending this money so that values that are centuries old -- that go to things like the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press and the freedom to organize -- are available in the digital age.”

The New York Times says the State Department expects to have spent about seventy million dollars on these efforts by the end of this year.

Alec Ross says one project involves a so-called panic button. People could use it to quickly remove a list of contacts from a phone or computer.

ALEC ROSS: “What's happening right now is people are being arrested and they are being forced to hand over their passwords, a lot of the times, for their social media accounts. And with a panic button, what it does, is it not only protects the individual, it protects her or his community.”

Freedom House, an organization in Washington, released a "Freedom on the Net" report in April. The group studied thirty-seven countries. It found that twenty-three of them had arrested Internet users for content posted online. Nineteen of the countries at least partially controlled international connections to the Internet. And at least twelve had interfered with networks, listened in on people’s communications or taken down websites.

Iran has one of the most extensive systems of online censorship. The Iranian government controls all Internet entry points into the country. Iran has also announced plans to build its own national Internet.

But the Wall Street Journal reported last month that few people think Iran could completely cut its links to the wider Internet. The newspaper said Iran could move toward a system of two Internets like a few other countries.

Ken Berman leads anti-censorship projects for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the parent agency of VOA.

KEN BERMAN: “China is considering the same thing, of basically having a closed system that would be hard for outside information to get in on.”

Alec Ross at the State Department says "the global community should respond" wherever freedom of expression is under attack.

ALEC ROSS: "Sometimes that is in countries that have more closed information environments. But oftentimes, frankly, it's in countries where the United States has friendly relationships with their governments, but where we have differences of opinions about how open an information environment should be."

And that's the VOA Special English Technology Report, written by June Simms. You can find part one of our report at I'm Steve Ember.