Thursday, May 12, 2011

US in new push to break China Internet firewall

China's so-called Great Firewall
© AFP/File

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States plans to pump millions of dollars into new technology to break through Internet censorship overseas amid a heightened crackdown on dissent in China, officials have said.

State Department officials said they would give $19 million to efforts to evade Internet controls in China, Iran and other authoritarian states which block online access to politically sensitive material.

Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state in charge of human rights, said funding would support cutting-edge technology that acts as a "slingshot" -- identifying material that countries are censoring and throwing it back at them.

"We're responding with new tools. This is a cat-and-mouse game. We're trying to stay one step ahead of the cat," Posner said.

The announcement came shortly after the United States and China wrapped up wide-ranging annual talks in which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed exasperation at Beijing's intensifying clampdown on domestic critics.

China routinely blocks sites that present non-official viewpoints on topics such as Tibet's exiled leader the Dalai Lama, the banned Falungong spiritual movement and the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

More recently, Chinese authorities blocked search results for "Hillary Clinton" after she gave a speech championing Internet freedom and for "Jasmine," an allusion to pro-democracy uprisings sweeping the Arab world.

"In effect, we're going to be redirecting information back in that governments have initially blocked," Posner said.

"This can be done through email or posting it on blogs or RSS feeds or websites that the government hasn't figured out how to block," he said.

The funding comes out of $30 million which the US Congress allocated in the current fiscal year for Internet freedom.

The failure until now to spend the money led lawmakers to accuse the State Department of kowtowing to China. A recent Senate committee report called for another government body to be put in charge of the funds.

Falungong supporters developed the so-called Global Internet Freedom Consortium, a software to evade China's Internet firewall that was so effective that Iranians sought it out during 2009 protests against the clerical regime.

Posner said that the State Department would not identify the recipients of funding due partly to "reasons of security."

Another US official who requested anonymity said that the State Department received requests for funding totaling $180 million and that it chose which ones appeared most effective.

The funding grants still need the green light from Congress, but the official voiced hope that it would happen quickly.

Clothilde Le Coz, Washington director of the media rights group Reporters Without Borders, welcomed the news and its timing, saying that China is jailing 77 people due to their Internet activities.

"It is a good news to know that more netizens will certainly be helped in getting their word out," she said.

But she said that circumvention tools for the Internet were a "Band-Aid" as the larger issue was ensuring freedom of expression.

In a speech in February, Clinton called the Internet "the public space of the 21st century" and pledged US efforts to ensure that it develops in a way that allows freedom of expression and association.

However, she also criticized activist site WikiLeaks for publishing secret US cables. She accused WikiLeaks of "theft" and said the issue did not contradict the US commitment to an open Internet.

© AFP -- Published at Activist Post with license

US, China clash on rights but ease economic rift

© AFP Mandel Ngan

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States sharply criticized China's human rights record, saying its clampdown on dissent was a "fool's errand" and accusing it of trying to stop history, but the two sides made headway in easing economic frictions in high-level talks this week.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an interview released amid the two-day talks that closed Tuesday, offered some of the harshest criticism yet of China as it mounts one of its biggest clampdowns on dissent in years.

"They're worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool's errand," Clinton said of Chinese officials in an interview with The Atlantic magazine that was conducted April 7.

China, apparently spooked by a wave of pro-democracy protests sweeping the Arab world, in recent months has rounded up dozens of lawyers, writers, artists and other perceived critics.

Showing that the US criticism was not just rhetorical, the State Department approved $19 million in funding for technology to help activists break through the Internet firewall in China, Iran and other authoritarian states.

The technology will include a cutting-edge "slingshot" that determines what governments are trying to censor and finds ways to get the information out, said Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state handling human rights.

China's Executive Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun insisted that his country was committed to human rights and asked the United States to look at its "remarkable progress" since the communist state was established in 1949.

"No country, including the United States, is perfect on the human rights issue. It is only natural for China and the United States to see human rights differently in some aspects," Zhang told reporters.

"So we call for a dialogue and consultation on the basis of equality, mutual respect and non-interference in each other's internal affairs," he said.

The two sides meanwhile appeared to ease some of their persistent economic tensions.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said Beijing promised not to insist on Chinese technology when handing out government contracts, even at the local level, addressing a longstanding concern of foreign businesses.

"We're very confident we're going to see substantial, ongoing improvement in the opportunities that American companies have in the Chinese market," Geithner said, welcoming the "very promising shifts" in Chinese economic policy.

The United States accuses China of artificially undervaluing its currency to fuel a flood of inexpensive manufactured goods for export. But China has let the yuan rise against the dollar as it confronts fears of inflation.

Geithner said a stronger yuan would help China hold back inflation and to transition from an economy based on exports to one based on consumption -- a fervent hope of US companies eager to enter the 1.3 billion-strong market.

Clinton, in an interview with Hong Kong-based Phoenix television, said she faced harsh criticism over US economic policy after President Barack Obama took over from the George W. Bush administration in 2009.

Drawing a parallel to frictions over human rights, Clinton said: "We're not always going to agree, and we do have some questions and some criticism, which we're happy to share with you in the hope that you will better understand us and maybe it will give you some ideas."

State Councilor Dai Bingguo, who led China's team in the strategic track of the talks, called for the two nations to respect each other's space.

"The Chinese side reaffirmed its commitment to the road of peaceful development and will not challenge the United States' interests," he said.

During the talks, China confirmed plans to offer scholarships to 20,000 US students over the next four years -- part of a drive by the Obama administration to improve connections with East Asia.

The United States and China also said they would set up regular talks on Asia policy, where the two powers have often not seen eye-to-eye.

In a sign of easing defense strains, military officers took part in the annual dialogue for the first time.

China last year snapped defense ties for months after the United States approved a $6.4 billion arms package to Taiwan, which Beijing views as a breakaway territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

Clinton told reporters that the military talks would help to "develop trust and avoid misunderstandings that can lead to dangerous miscalculations."

© AFP -- Published at Activist Post with license

Flood waters set sights on Louisiana oil refineries

A woman looks at flooded homes in Tennessee
© AFP/Getty Images SCOTT OLSON

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AFP) - Record flooding along the Mississippi River threatens to inundate at least two Louisiana refineries and hundreds of oil and gas wells, officials warned.

"This is a very serious flood," Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal told reporters.

"We haven't seen this kind of flooding since 1927."

Army engineers plan to open a major spillway by Saturday in order to divert water away from New Orleans and ease pressure on the Mississippi as it approaches the Gulf of Mexico.

Floodwaters as deep as 20 feet will inundate areas west of the river which house about 24,000 people and 13,000 structures. Jindal urged residents to begin evacuations now.

The state's fuel team has identified two refineries, over 1,750 oil and gas wells and 135 operators in the affected areas.

"Safety is a top concern on these structures as the Spillway is opened," Jindal's office said in a press release.

Oil prices pushed slightly higher on concerns that US supplies would be hit by the flooding.

"Flooding in the lower Mississippi valley, where 11 refineries process up to 2.5 million barrels a day, is causing problems for the US oil and oil product markets," analyst Nic Brown of Natixis said in a note.

"Some refineries may need to be closed temporarily, while the transportation of both crude and oil products may also be impacted."

JP Morgan noted that while "the situation still remains uncertain, refineries, terminals, and other oil infrastructure are expected to take proactive measures to ensure safety, potentially reducing runs or shutting facilities if necessary."

The governor did not specify which refineries were at risk, but one is thought to be the Krotz Springs Refinery of Alon USA, a subsidiary of Israel's ALON Israel Oil Co. Ltd., which sits near the Atchafalaya River, a major tributary of the Mississippi.

An Alon spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

"We're already seeing the threat priced in somewhat," Phil Flynn, an oil analyst at PFGBest Research in Chicago, told AFP.

"But if we get into a situation where these refineries are shut down for weeks, this could be very serious."

The worst floods to hit the central United States in more than 70 years have swallowed up homes, farms and roads in Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi.

Heavy rains last month filled rivers and creeks already swollen from the melting of a thick winter snow pack, which are now backing up because the Mississippi is so swollen.

The Mississippi River has swelled to six times its normal width and was three miles (4.8 kilometers) wide when it crested Monday in Memphis, where it is typically half a mile wide.

Portions of the river have also been closed to shipping.