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Google-China flap spurs federal plan to bypass censors

Members of Congress announce the Global Internet Freedom Caucus and a bill to spend federal dollars on research to "defeat Internet suppression and censorship."

For at least seven years, a handful of politicians in Washington, D.C., have been unsuccessfully trying to make it more difficult for countries such as China or Iran to censor and monitor the Internet.

There was a failed 2003 bill directing the U.S. State Department to develop anti-"jamming" software, and another two years later. A 2007 effort by Rep. Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican, to ban Internet companies from storing personal information about users inside a "designated Internet-restricting country" never received a vote. Neither has a bizarre new proposal allowing the Federal Communications Commission to regulate Internet search companies.

Now Smith and his political allies, pointing to the recent disclosures about the Chinese cyberattacks aimed at Google, are hoping that a more straightforward proposal will spell legislative success. They're not proposing new regulations or new FCC authority. Instead, they just want to spend money.

Smith and Oregon Rep. David Wu, a Democrat, announced a bill to give federal grants and prizes to corporations such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo to develop "deployable technologies to defeat Internet suppression and censorship." The money will also be available to university researchers.

During a press conference in Washington on Tuesday that included an announcement of a Global Internet Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, Wu said his bill would target countries that act as a "handmaiden in repression." The Internet Freedom Act of 2010 would create a new bureaucracy called the "Internet Freedom Foundation" inside the National Science Foundation.

"Peaceful expression of political belief and opinions is coming under concerted attack," Smith said. He said that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "wants to see Internet freedom legislation on the floor of the House and soon."

Because 2010 is an election year, and one that is more distracting for Democrats than might have been expected a year ago, the odds of a major new Internet rights bill being adopted seem poor. What the New Jersey and Oregon duo seem to have concluded is that a smaller bill that gives U.S. corporations money--instead of slapping new regulations on them--stands a better chance of success.

Separately, on Monday, the Treasury Department announced new rules that make it easier to export instant messaging, chat, and e-mail software to Iran, Sudan, and Cuba (and provide Web-based services as well, as long as no fee is charged). Of course, open source and free versions of those products have long been available from other countries.

Update 6:38 p.m.: Pete Sepp, the vice president for policy at the National Taxpayers Union, which advocates lower taxes, told CNET that if politicians decide this bill is worth passing, "the funds ought to be carved out of the existing NSF budget rather than added on." In general, Sepp said, one-time prizes for specific results are better than grants because there's less likelihood of creating a permanent bureaucratic infrastructure that can keep generating liabilities for taxpayers.

Update 6:40 p.m.: Berin Szoka, a senior fellow at the free-market Progress and Freedom Foundation, said Wu's bill would fund the commitment that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made to supporting "innovation competition" that will promote circumvention technologies and other technologies of freedom. "I'm generally no fan of government funding," Szoka said. "But competitive funding of research is often the best possible way for the government to do something constructive. And the end here certainly is noble."