BY TOM COBURN, BOB FU, KATRINA LANTOS SWETT AND YANG JIANLI, OPINION CONTRIBUTORS — 05/24/19 10:00 AM EDT
Closed society regimes openly acknowledge the internet’s ability to undermine their survival, and therefore they provide unlimited resources to maintain internet firewalls — the Berlin Walls of our time.
The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) will receive more than $775 million during the current fiscal year to “inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” Successor to the Board of Broadcasting Governors (BBG), the USAGM continues the BBG’s determined indifference to closed society internet freedom and remains dominated by a staff that defines its “core mission” as supporting duplicative shortwave radio networks requiring large production staffs.
The USAGM’s self-interested disregard of the internet’s power to fulfill its 21st century mission is inexcusable.
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While serving in the Senate, one of us described the BBG as “the most worthless organization in the federal government.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that the BBG was “practically defunct in terms of its capacity to send a message around the world.” In 2016, the late Michael Novak and John O’Sullivan, former chief speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher, were joined by other conservatives in finding that U.S. internet freedom policies “would have been a little different … had they been managed by Iranian or Chinese agents.”
- The USAGM’s Internet Freedom Anti-Censorship budget accountamounts to less than 2 percent of its appropriation, and most of it is spent on conferences, festivals and staff size increases;
- As if Voice of America broadcasts could better satisfy the information hunger of closed societies than Google, YouTube and Skype, the USAGM offers its miniscule firewall circumvention support only to programs focused on increasing the size of its radio audiences;
- In an act declared “shameful” by the Washington Post, the USAGM defunded a firewall circumvention system their most senior internet staffers had earlier found through an “aggressive” examination would be “very likely” to rapidly provide uncensored daily internet access to 25 million firewall-blocked residents of Iran and China; for a mere 2.5 percent of the USAGM budget.
There is more. The USAGM’s indifference to the bypass of closed society firewalls has made it easy for China to block the entry of U.S. internet companies into Chinese markets — a development that has caused Facebook and other U.S. companies to become supplicants for Chinese goodwill on Chinese terms. In 2017, the U.S. Trade Representative foundthat China’s firewalls created a “significant” trade barrier causing billions of dollars of lost U.S. business opportunity — a loss that has given monopoly status to government and self-censored Chinese search engine and social network companies.
We thus join a broad left-right coalition calling on Congress to establish a primary USAGM obligation to rapidly provide access to the internet in closed societies and, at the least, to compel the USAGM to allocate not less than 10 percent of its appropriation to do so. Given the asymmetric relationship between the cost of maintaining and circumventing firewalls, such a step can rapidly lead to the massive bypass of existing firewalls.
We further call on President Trump to use the powers conferred on him when Congress established the USAGM as an executive branch agency subject to presidential authority. In particular, we urge him to direct it to immediately conduct a major competition seeking rapid, order of magnitude increases in closed society internet access.
The world will be freer and safer the day after 200,000 Iranians are able to conduct an interactive town meeting and 500,000 house church Christians are able to participate in a U.S.-hosted worship service, and the same will be true when Chinese crackdowns in Tibet can be immediately known to the world and in China.
Accordingly, the time has come to bring U.S. information policy in line with imperative needs and historic opportunities — a step achievable through budget reallocations that require no additional federal spending, and the determined oversight of an agency that to date has artfully avoided public attention.
We know of no action the president or Congress can take that can more powerfully, or in a more peaceful fashion, advance global freedom and American national interests.
Tom Coburn, a former Republican U.S. senator from Oklahoma, is a physician and health care policy expert at the Manhattan Institute.
Bob Fu is CEO of ChinaAid, an international nonprofit Christian human rights organization. He was a student leader during the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations.
Katrina Lantos Swett is CEO of the Lantos Foundation, which champions human rights, and former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Yang Jianli is CEO of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, a pro-democracy movement. He was among the students demonstrating for democracy in Tiananmen Square.