As the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square upheaval approached, Internet users in China found new restrictions on access to Web sites offering accounts or commentary on the June 4, 1989, crackdown that brought the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators.
The New York Times and The Guardian reported that even social networking sites such as Twitter were blocked throughout China this week. Reuters reported that Hotmail similarly went dark across the country. The cyber censorship is nothing new, in China or elsewhere. One research and advocacy group, the OpenNet Initiative, reports that more than 25 countries have some kind of political or governmental censorship of the Web.
The motives vary. In the United States, schools and libraries are required by federal law to block access to certain pornographic materials.
As with more traditional forms of censorship, there are digital pathways around such information embargoes. The Web itself provides numerous programs -- some commercial, some free -- designed to allow surfers to circumvent blocks on content, or to mask their own identities from prying government eyes. A variety of human rights groups are lobbying Congress to provide more federal support for efforts to unblock the flow of information to countries with varying degrees of hospitality to the Internet.
In a relatively modest way, the government has done so in the past. In a 2008 appropriations bill, Congress directed $15 million toward such efforts, with the justification that, "ensuring the freedom of Internet communication in dictatorships and autocracies throughout the world is a high and critical interest of the United States."
Last month, a coalition of human rights activists and dissidents from countries including China, Burma, Laos and Cuba joined in signing an open letter to Congress urging the allocation of $50 million to beef up efforts to provide hardware and software tools to counter government censorship of the Internet.
Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., urged an appropriations panel to support the initiative, calling it "a low-cost method of allowing people, especially those living under repressive regimes, to access all-source, uncensored, unfiltered information."
Exactly how to do that, and how to mete out the anti-censor funding, would be a task for the State Department. The Citizen Lab, an initiative of the University of Toronto, published "Everyone's Guide to By-Passing Internet Censorship."
It lists a wide variety of strategies and software tools for opening Internet access. Reportedly one of the most robust systems for penetrating the kinds of filters imposed by China and other countries has been developed by the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, a group that's also at the center of the current lobbying for increased federal funding.
The developers of the Internet access tools promoted by the GIFC are loosely allied with the spiritual movement Falun Gong. Falun Gong considers itself apolitical, but is regarded as a subversive religious cult by the Chinese government, which has banned its activities. American-based adherents of Falun Gong developed their version of the Internet tool to ease communications for their followers and sympathizers of the movement in China. But its software is not China-specific and has reportedly been used to thwart government-directed Internet controls in countries throughout the globe.
The appropriations language proposed to Congress would not earmark any specific amount for the GIFC or any other group, but GIFC's supporters argue that the success they have demonstrated without government aid would make the group a logical candidate for a significant share of the new funding.
Michael J. Horowitz, director of Hudson Institute's Project for Civil Justice Reform and Project for International Religious Liberty and a former official of the Reagan administration, is a leading advocate of the GIFC project and its lobbying effort with Congress. He sees that effort and the Internet overall as a powerful tool to promote openness and democracy worldwide just as, in the Cold War era, agencies such as Radio Free Europe broadcast pro-democracy messages beyond the Iron Curtain.
But his hopes that the Falun Gong-associated group might benefit from the increased appropriation suggests a potential dilemma for the U.S. government. At a time when Washington is striving for increased financial and security cooperation with Beijing, it might be difficult for American diplomats to explain their aid for a group Beijing regards as subversive while the Federal Reserve continues to rely on China to finance American debt.
"This must be viewed as an Internet freedom program and not as an anti-China initiative," Mr. Horowitz said. "You're not giving it to the Falun Gong; it's going for [computer] servers. ... The Burmese, the Iranians regard these as lifelines."
Mr. Horowitz insisted that the initiative not be aimed specifically at the Chinese government. But he argued further that its potential to promote human rights worldwide offered a moral rebuttal to such pragmatic objections. He noted that Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson faced similar criticisms when he lobbied for a confrontational approach to issues such as the persecution of Jews in the former Soviet Union.
"It was the same with [President] Reagan when he raised human rights in the Helsinki Process," Mr. Horowitz said, while acknowledging, "If you think you should never do anything that in any way inconveniences or concerns the Chinese, you should be against this legislation."