Bush Administration Announces Digital Freedom Initiative

March 4, 2003. Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans, other Bush administration officials, and others announced the launch of a Digital Freedom Initiative. The initiative involves foreign aid for developing countries to develop information and communication technology (ICT), training by Peace Corps volunteers, and involvement by U.S. technology companies, such as Cisco and HP. This launch event pertained to the African nation of Senegal. See, DOC release.

The participants' descriptions of the initiative were long on superlatives, aspirations, and plans for expansion to other countries, but short on specifics. It will involve foreign aid grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). A release from the White House press office stated that the estimated budget for the Senegal program over three years is $6.5 Million. It will also involve contributions from Cisco and HP, primarily in the form of training and "human capital", as opposed to free equipment and money.

While the initiative carries the description "digital freedom", the Bush administration announced nothing regarding freedom to communicate via the web, or freedom from barriers to electronic commerce or discriminatory taxation of e-commerce, internet access or computers. President of Senegal Abdoulaye Wade, who spoke by video, stated that there is a levy of "one dollar out of each purchase of a computer equipment" and one cent per phone call in Senegal.

USA Freedom Corps Director John Bridgeland described the initiative as "an effort to use information and communications technology to create growth and prosperity in the developing world".

Don EvansSecretary Evans (at right) was the lead speaker at the launch event in an auditorium in the Eisenhower Building. He stated that Digital Freedom Initiative is "an exciting new model of how different parts of the federal government, the development community, the private sector, developing nations" can create wealth.

Evans also stated that he spoke with President Bush about this initiative. "He is very excited about its potential impact, for economic growth in Senegal, and across the globe. President Bush is firm in the belief that partnership with the developing world is a moral imperative for the United States of America."

Evans continued that "Our solution is free enterprise and free markets. We know that the miracle of capitalism is that in an environment of free enterprise the spirit of competition takes hold, leading to more innovation, which leads to economic growth, which leads to higher standards of living, which leads to quality of life, which leads to a world that lives peace and prosperity." He also spoke of the importance of "rule of law, transparency, human rights, and property rights".

Evans said that this Digital Freedom Initiative "will increase productivity, expand trade, and promote innovation. This initiative will be a catalyst for modern capitalism, real life changing democratic capitalism throughout the developing world."

He also said that he envisioned that farmers in Africa "will be able to negotiate the sale of their crops over the internet", that "teenagers in slums will have a chance to become web designers", and that "business incubators will connect entrepreneurs with expertise and capital all around the world".

Evans also said that this initiative will be expanded to 20 developing countries within 5 years. Senegal is just the pilot program.

Andrew Natsios, Administrator of USAID, said that this initiative in Senegal "will build on the country's already significant communications", including  cyber cafes. He predicted that more than 350,000 businesses will become involved.

Gaddi Vasquez, Director of the Peace Corps, said that the Peace Corps, which has placed over 3,000 volunteers in Senegal since its inception, "is a dynamic organization that designs its programs to meet the needs of its host countries". He that this initiative will provide additional resources to Peace Corps volunteers who are involved in information and communications technology training.

Henando de Soto, President of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy, and a professor from Peru, spoke about the importance of free markets, the rule of law, and property rights regimes. He argued that property rights are necessary, not only for the formation of capital, but also for information. When he spoke about property rights, he referenced financial assets and land.

Carly Fiorina, Chairman and CEO of Hewlett Packard, also spoke at the launch event. HP and Cisco are both "partners" in the Digital Freedom Initiative. She said that it is not enough for multinational corporations to send money and equipment to developing nations. She called for a "new model of involvement" that develops human resources and skills. "You can't just throw money and product into a community." She added that you need "people on the ground."

John Morgridge, Chairman of Cisco Systems, also spoke at the event. His comments mirrored those of Fiorina. He said that in the past Cisco has given away routers, but many "never left the box". He said that the most valuable asset is human capital, and to develop this requires training. Hence, he focused on how Cisco's internet based Cisco Networking Academies are teaching people in developing countries to build networks. He said that Cisco now has one academy in Senegal, and that it plans to expand this to ten by the end of the year.

The Bush administration's initiative is titled the "Digital Freedom Initiative". Participants at the administration's launch event and press conference afterwards identified freedom in terms of free markets, free enterprise and property rights. However, there are other concepts of digital freedom that the participants did not identify as components of this initiative.

For example, there was no discussion of freedom from trade barriers. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), which negotiates trade agreements on behalf of the President, endeavors to include provisions in bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements that reduce barriers to electronic commerce, and barriers to the provision of internet services. No one from the USTR participated in the launch event.

As another example, there was no discussion of the freedom of internet users to access web sites, to publish on the web, or to communicate via the internet. There is a similarly named initiative on Capitol Hill -- the Global Internet Freedom Act. It is sponsored by Rep. Chris Cox (R-CA), Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), and others. It was introduced in the 107th Congress as HR 5524. It was re-introduced in the current Congress as HR 48. The Senate version in the 107th Congress was S 3093, sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ).

HR 48 states in its findings that "Intergovernmental, nongovernmental, and media organizations have reported the widespread and increasing pattern by authoritarian governments to block, jam, and monitor Internet access and content, using technologies such as firewalls, filters, and `black boxes´. Such jamming and monitoring of individual activity on the Internet includes surveillance of e-mail messages, message boards, and the use of particular words; `stealth blocking' individuals from visiting websites; the development of `black lists´ of users that seek to visit these websites; and the denial of access to the Internet ." It further finds that "The United States Government has thus far commenced only modest steps to fund and deploy technologies to defeat Internet censorship."

The bill would establish in the International Broadcasting Bureau an Office of Global Internet Freedom to "develop and implement a comprehensive global strategy to combat state-sponsored and state-directed Internet jamming, and persecution of those who use the Internet". The bill would also authorize the appropriation of $50 Million for each of the Fiscal Years 2003 and 2004.

Rep. Chris CoxIn addition, the Republican House Policy Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Cox (at right), released a policy statement titled "Tear Down This Firewall" on September 19, 2002. It states that "Increasingly, non-democratic regimes around the world are denying their peoples unrestricted access to the Internet. Cuba, Laos, North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and Vietnam are the most notorious violators of Internet freedom. These governments, according to the U.S. State Department and such organizations as Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders, are using methods of control that include denying their citizens access to the Internet, censoring content, banning private ownership of computers, and even making e-mail accounts so expensive that ordinary people cannot use them. These countries use firewalls, filters, and other devices to block and censor the Internet."

See also, story titled "AEI Panel Advocates ``Freeing the Chinese Internet´´", in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 416, April 23, 2002.

Neither Rep. Cox nor Rep. Lantos was present at the administration's "Digital Freedom Initiative" launch event.

TLJ spoke with Cisco Chairman Morgridge afterwards about the use of firewalls and proxy servers by governments to block access  to certain web sites. He said that the "Digital Freedom Initiative" does not address this. He added, "I would say that they are really going to struggle if they try to do it. They are going to have to be pretty smart." He also said that "the tighter you control it, the less it means to you as an asset, the less it means to your people, the less it means."