The Obama administration’s initiative is in one sense a new front in a longstanding diplomatic push to defend free speech and nurture democracy. For decades, the United States has sent radio broadcasts into autocratic countries through Voice of America and other means. More recently, Washington has supported the development of software that preserves the anonymity of users in places like China, and training for citizens who want to pass information along the government-owned Internet without getting caught.
But the latest initiative depends on creating entirely separate pathways for communication. It has brought together an improbable alliance of diplomats and military engineers, young programmers and dissidents from at least a dozen countries, many of whom variously describe the new approach as more audacious and clever and, yes, cooler.
Sometimes the State Department is simply taking advantage of enterprising dissidents who have found ways to get around government censorship. American diplomats are meeting with operatives who have been burying Chinese cellphones in the hills near the border with North Korea, where they can be dug up and used to make furtive calls, according to interviews and the diplomatic cables.
The new initiatives have found a champion in Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose department is spearheading the American effort. “We see more and more people around the globe using the Internet, mobile phones and other technologies to make their voices heard as they protest against injustice and seek to realize their aspirations,” Mrs. Clinton said in an e-mail response to a query on the topic. “There is a historic opportunity to effect positive change, change America supports,” she said. “So we’re focused on helping them do that, on helping them talk to each other, to their communities, to their governments and to the world.”
Developers caution that independent networks come with downsides: repressive governments could use surveillance to pinpoint and arrest activists who use the technology or simply catch them bringing hardware across the border. But others believe that the risks are outweighed by the potential impact. “We’re going to build a separate infrastructure where the technology is nearly impossible to shut down, to control, to surveil,” said Sascha Meinrath, who is leading the “Internet in a suitcase” project as director of the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group.
“The implication is that this disempowers central authorities from infringing on people’s fundamental human right to communicate,” Mr. Meinrath added.