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Action urged against Internet firewalls of Iran, China, other repressive regimes

WASHINGTON (BP) –- Southern Baptist ethicist Russell D. Moore and other human rights advocates have urged congressional leaders to prioritize efforts to breach Internet firewalls established by repressive regimes.

Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission ERLC), and four others wrote the chairs and ranking members of both the Senate and House of Representatives Appropriations Committees to request increased funding for firewall circumvention efforts by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The BBG is an independent federal agency that supervises all federally supported non-military media in promotion of freedom, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia.

Moore and the other signers called for Congress to more than double funds for the BBG’s Internet freedom and firewall circumvention programs. Only 2 percent of the agency’s current $720 million budget is committed to that effort. The letter requested that allocation be increased to at least 5 percent.

“A modest and immediate reform of BBG funding priorities will permit an historic breakthrough that will allow millions of isolated residents to scale the ‘great fire walls’ erected by their governments, and become active participants in pursuit of the freedom of information,” Moore and the others said in the Nov. 19 letter.

Authoritarian governments are using a variety of methods — including connection disruptions, content blocking and violence against bloggers — to restrict online speech, according to a 2012 report by Washington, D.C.,-based Freedom House. The report identified Iran, China and Cuba as the countries with the worst Internet freedom. In addition, it included the following among countries that are “not free” when it comes to the Internet: Burma, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Vietnam.

Joining Moore on the letter to the Appropriations Committee leaders were Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; John Wester, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Communications; David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and Frank Jannuzi, deputy executive director of Amnesty International, USA.

They requested the committee chairs, as well as the lead committee members from the minority parties, to include in the final 2014 spending bill a portion of the House version that directs the BBG to “expand unrestricted access to information on the Internet through the development and use of circumvention technologies.” The signers also urged the committee leaders to incorporate language from the House bill that urged the BBG to consider including among its increased efforts the “operational expansion of field-tested programs that provide unmonitored and uncensored access to the Internet for large numbers of users.”

The final bill also should include language from both the House and Senate versions that calls for the BBG to find savings in its operations to strengthen its online freedom efforts, Moore and the others said. Their request is “merely a modest reallocation of existing funds,” not an increase in federal spending, they said.

Internet freedom is vital to religious freedom, Southern Baptist public policy specialist Barrett Duke told congressional staff members and religious liberty advocates in July. In a Capitol Hill briefing, Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy and research, cited seven reasons online freedom is critical to religious freedom:

— “Minority faiths need connection for encouragement and protection.”

— Religious leaders with little opportunity for formal theological instruction need access to the Internet.

— “New faith groups need connection to more mature groups to encourage them and assist them” in faithful growth.

— Cults produced by erroneous theology are “less likely when errant interpretations of Scripture can be thoroughly investigated.”

— “Fellowship and communion” are key parts of expressing religious faith.

— “Religious freedom involves the freedom to seek God,” which includes the liberty to ask others about God.

— Collective worship online is a vital part of religious expression.

The Nov. 19 letter from Moore and the others went to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D.-Md., and Sen. Richard Shelby, R.-Ala., chairwoman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Harold Rogers, R.-Ky., and Rep. Nita Lowey, D.-N.Y., chairman and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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