U.S. Bill Allocates $30 Million To Help Hong Kong Bypass China’s Great Firewall Internet Restrictions

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In a piece of legislation currently being considered by the United States Senate, the U.S. government will allocate $30 million to enable Hong Kong residents to bypass China's Great Firewall. While residents of one of the most densely populated and developed cities in the world are not directly surveilled by the firewall, a controversial National Security Law which was enforced last year bred fears that the region's internet regulation policies would come to mirror those in Mainland China, where the Great Firewall restricts access to internet platforms such as Google and Facebook.

U.S. Innovation and Competiton Act Cites Internet Suppression In Hong Kong As Reason For Funding Means For Bypassing China's Great Firewall

While the new laws came into effect last year, tensions spiked in Hong Kong at the start of this year when internet service providers blocked access to two websites. This came after American companies operating in the city stopped reviewing user data requests from the city's authorities.

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The bill, officially dubbed the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 (USICA), allocates $30 million in funds starting from the next fiscal year. Its Section 3309 aims to aid in developing technologies and programs for an "open, interoperable, reliable and secure internet"  for Hong Kong residents.

It then lists down the objectives that this funding will have to achieve. These objectives include diversifying the portfolio of technologies at the disposal of the U.S. government for combating internet censorship.

A full list of these objectives, according to the Act, is:

(i) to make the internet available in Hong Kong;

(ii) to increase the number of the tools in the technology portfolio;

(iii) to promote the availability of such technologies and tools in Hong Kong;

(iv) to encourage the adoption of such technologies and tools by the people of Hong Kong;

(v) to scale up the distribution of such technologies and tools throughout Hong Kong;

(vi) to prioritize the development of tools, components, code, and technologies that are fully open-source, to the extent practicable;

(vii) to conduct research on repressive tactics that undermine internet freedom in Hong Kong;

(viii) to ensure digital safety guidance and support is available to repressed individual citizens, human rights defenders, independent journalists, civil society organizations and marginalized populations in Hong Kong; and

(ix) to engage American private industry, including e-commerce firms and social networking companies, on the importance of preserving internet access in Hong Kong.

Users in Hong Kong trying to access the HK Chronicles website could not do so earlier this year. Image: The New York Times

These funds will be allocated to the Secretary of State and the Open Technology Fund (OTF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing internet censorship globally. Under the USICA, the Secretary will create a Hong Kong Internet Freedom Program under the United States Department of State's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. At the same time, the OTF's president will also establish a similarly named program, and both of these will operate independently from each other.

For its efforts to meet the USICA's objectives, the OTF will receive $5 million in each of the fiscal years 2022 and 2023. However, the State Department's program will be better funded, as it is set to receive $10 million each in the same fiscal years.

Additionally, the technologies which the two programs will develop will be audited to ensure that they do not end up compromising U.S. national security interests.

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The efforts by the U.S. government to counter internet suppression in Hong Kong are also viewed as preemptive measures that aim to act in advance of any potential misdemeanors in Hong Kong. Authorities in the city have cited the new national security laws as giving them an ambit for restricting citizens' access to certain websites, arguing that the access has the potential to harm the region's national security.

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