Manufacturing Dissent: Bush Institute's Cyber Dissidents Panel Gathers Friends of the Freedom Agenda

The George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University won't be breaking ground till November, but its policy arm, the Bush Institute, has already had a busy spring. Shacking up in SMU's Collins Center, it hosted its first events last month, covering education leadership, literacy in Afghanistan and natural gas -- an impressive programming pace, but none ventured too close to the Bush legacy's messy parts. 

For skeptics convinced it's a matter of time till the think tank shows its true colors as a neocon retirement home, things got a little juicier Monday for the Bush Institute's fourth event: a conference of online dissidents from trouble spots around the world. The institute pulled together six big anti-government voices from China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Venezuela and Cuba to discuss using the Web in the interest of freedom -- or what President Bush, former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty CEO Jeffrey Gedmin more specifically called "the freedom agenda."

Three of the six cyber dissidents live in exile. For organizing rallies and writing anti-government blogs, Syrian-born Ahed Al Hendi spent over a month in a three-by-two-foot prison cell. "It's a risk being here, but we believe in this," Venezuelan activist Rodrigo Diamanti said. "We're very happy [the Venezuelan government] allowed us to come here. We don't know if they'll allow us to come back."

Bush, and experts who spoke after him, began by framing the Internet not as the automatic freedom generator it once promised to be, but as yet another battleground in the struggle against tyranny. With his opening remarks, Bush made it clear the day wasn't just about freedom fighters trading war stories, but about laying out a plan of action.

"One of the things I was nervous about about a think tank is that all we do is have people come here and they sit around and think," Bush said. "I think it's important not only to have people come around and think and have experts write and opine, but also to figure out how to act."

Hear Bush's opening remarks at Monday's Bush Institute conference.

A few speakers praised Google for abandoning its Chinese operation last month, although its exit also means more Chinese search traffic will run through the more tightly controlled Chinese-based Baidu. In general, though, Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor said she's been "sorely disappointed" by the private sector's timid approach to online freedom against authoritarian governments.

Freedom House, which co-sponsored the conference, is at work on a report on online freedom around the world, which will suggest that globalization, economic prosperity and Internet access don't guarantee a freer population, said Christopher Walker, its director of studies. In spite of the spread of Internet access, Walker said, we've been in the midst of a global "freedom recession" the last five years. "The Internet is not a panacea" against authoritarianism, Freedom House's Robert Guerra said, pointing out that the government in Iran has blocked Web 2.0 sites, and that for the past seven months, China has blocked Internet access altogether in its far western Xinjiang Province.

"If you're trying to protect speech, you're also making it more difficult to monitor by governments like our own," said Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and one of the founders of Tripod.com. Zuckerman was the only one who came anywhere near the irony that all this talk about ducking government surveillance was happening at a Bush Institute event. There are places online -- Tor networks and proxies -- that make room for dissidents, Zuckerman said, but "we don't tend to think of them as dissident spaces; we tend to think of them as terrorist spaces." (Read Zuckerman's liveblogs here and here.)

Once the conference turned over to the panel of dissidents, Al Hendi had his own read on the significance of being at the ex-president's institute. "In Syria, we don't have former presidents," he said. "They are either in prison or, god forbid, killed." That grim tone ran through the rest of other the panelists' introductions too, as each described their challenges in fighting for online freedom.

"Because of the economic boom in China, the government has more resources to deploy on Internet censorship," said Isaac Mao, a Chinese entrepreneur who turned to activism, he said, only after government intrusion in his business left him and his colleagues feeling "harassed and paranoid."

Oleg Kozlovsky, stuck in Russia but joining in via Skype (that Icelandic volcanic ash kept his flight through Europe grounded), said the Russian government hires hackers to bring down dissident sites and that he's been arrested multiple times for protesting -- even illegally drafted into the army to keep him isolated.

The guests of honor repeatedly mentioned the importance of keeping a decentralized opposition to thwart censorship, but when it came time for the lunchtime keynote, Radio Free Europe's Jeffrey Gedmin took the podium to offer some conclusions for the top-down crowd. Iran is using social media to spread "the same kind of disinformation" the Soviets did, Gedmin said, employing well-funded and highly trained "cyber militias."

Gedmin -- who joined RFE under Bush but has kept his job under President Obama -- hewed closer to Bush's earlier charge to "figure out how to act." It's time to think about "revitalizing the freedom agenda," Geldin said, and get away from the "new realpolitik" in Washington today. "We have to get back to the idea game," he said. "We have to listen to the dissidents who are still on the front lines."

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Patrick Michels
Contact: Patrick Michels