To fund or not to fund – the State Department’s Hamlet like approach to Internet freedom.

Having unequivocally declared Internet freedom one of the Obama administration’s top priorities back in January, the State Department has been sending out confusingly mixed signals ever since. In fact, what is emerging is a picture of a thoroughly schizophrenic policy, pushed and pulled between various parts of the State Department and Congress. This is too bad, for Internet freedom could well become one of the defining political and human rights issues of the 21st century. It deserves the unwavering commitment from the U.S. government that Secretary of State Clinton promised in her speech at the Newseum on January 10, just when the battle between the Chinese government and the Internet giant Google was heating up.

The most recent example of the confusion surrounding this critically important policy was the story run by the BBC on May 12 that the State Department had awarded $1.5 million to the Global Internet Freedom Consortium (GIFC) – a group run by the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned in China — whose software Freegate is designed to circumvent China’s censors and by all accounts does that very successfully.

On the one hand, spokesmen for the group confirmed to both the BBC and The Washington Post that the grant had been made, though they would rather have had the $4 million they had originally asked for., On the other hand, a State Department spokesman denied that the deal was final to the BBC, saying that the announcement was premature. Meanwhile, the Chinese government, whose world class army of Internet censors the GIFC are working to outwit, has been exploding indignation, hoping to make the State Department back off.

And it seems that the Chinese may have had some success. In response to a question from Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA), Secretary Clinton stated that a “multi-faceted approach” was needed towards Internet freedom, which would account for the delays in disbursing the $30 million in appropriated funding (FY2010) for Internet censorship circumvention. The danger is that “multi-facetted” simply becomes a codeword for “too hot to handle,” and that the perfect becomes the enemy of the good. In reality, even minor cracks in the information walls built by authoritarian governments will further the cause of freedom in the long run.

Another example of State’s incoherence on this subject was the grant awarded this spring to the makers of the software Haystack. Haystack is designed to breakdown the Internet firewall established by the mullahs of Tehran, and it has so far been effective, though on a much smaller scale than the GIFC efforts aimed at China. Following a grueling application procedure, the human rights group that developed the Haystack software received a grant from the State Department in March of this year –but only found out about it when Hillary Clinton made the public announcement in Moscow.

It is worth quoting the Secretary of State’s words again as she set the policy on Internet freedom at the Newseum event in January. “On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.”  The commitment reflected in Clinton’s speech gave heart to a great many free speech and human rights activists – just as President’s Reagan’s challenge in Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” gave hope to millions behind the Iron Curtain.

It is high time the State Department got its act together and got unequivocally behind Clinton’s compelling vision of a world without internet firewalls.