The Fall of Internet Freedom: Meet the Company That Secretly Built 'Cuban Twitter'

Humari Awaz never had a website, too, so evidence of it was scant in the first place. It is very likely, though, that a record of it might exist on a Pakistani blog—please get in touch if you are a skilled googler of Urdu.

But if Humari Awaz faded away, Mobile Accord remained a friend of the State Department. In the first days of 2010, according to The New York Times Magazine, the company’s CEO, James Eberhard, and nine other technology leaders dined with Clinton and her staff. The guests included Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Eric Schmidt of Google. Writes Jesse Lichtenstein in the Times: “Toward the end of the evening, Clinton delighted those assembled by inviting them to use her ‘as an app.’”

Mere days later, a tremendous earthquake struck Haiti, and Eberhard took Clinton up on her offer. According to the Times, Eberhard worked with the State Department to set up an SMS donation service in the first 12 hours after the quake. The service raised more than $40 million for the Red Cross.

Clinton delivers her 2010 speech on Internet freedom (Reuters)

Later in January, Clinton gave a major address on Internet freedom at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. She spoke first of the tragedy of the earthquake. The bright point of her speech—indeed, her pivot to her point about the power of communication networks—was the enormous amount of money that Americans had donated to Haiti via Mobile Accord’s texting service.

“[I]n the hours after the quake,” she said:

we worked with partners in the private sector; first, to set up the text "HAITI" campaign so that mobile phone users in the United States could donate to relief efforts via text messages. That initiative has been a showcase for the generosity of the American people, and thus far, it's raised over $25 million for recovery efforts.

That partner was Mobile Accord. Months later, the chief innovation officer at USAID would speak approvingly of the company and its work in Haiti.

Eberhard had some experience with mobile text donations: It was Mobile Accord’s first business. He had also long worked in mobile phones. In the early 2000s, his first company, which marketed ringtones, sold for millions.

Meanwhile in early 2010, according to the Associated Press, ZunZuneo had already launched, and USAID had experimented somewhat with using it to assemble political affiliation information about Cuban cell users. 

But Creative Associates, its original contractor, had “decided that ZunZuneo was so popular [that it] wasn’t sophisticated enough to build, in effect, ‘a scaled down version of Twitter.’” 

So, USAID hired Mobile Accord. In July, USAID flew Eberhard to Spain to talk about a “below the radar strategy,” according to the AP. It erected shell corporations to hide ZunZuneo’s U.S. ownership.

Mobile Accord, of course, had run a social network like this before. It had even run one for the U.S. government. While there isn't direct evidence, it seems likely that the software that powered Humari Awaz was similar to the software chosen by ZunZuneo.

Meanwhile, Eberhard had become a favorite guest of the U.S. government. In February 2010, he spoke in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the invitation of the U.S. Embassy there. In June 2010, he spoke at the U.S. government-backed Institute for Peace on mobile banking in Afghanistan. The next year, he spoke at the State Department’s tech conference and a State Department event in Tunisia.

It’s useful to return to Clinton’s speech at the Newseum to help understand why. The U.S., she said, had a responsibility to protect freedoms of expression and access on the Internet, a 21st-century extension of America’s history of protecting speech rights abroad. She cautioned that the Internet and other “new technologies” did not inherently radiate goodness, but that they could be useful, liberating tools if shaped by benevolent American power:

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. And we recognize that the world's information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it. 

Not only was such a strategy right for the U.S., she held, but it was smart, wise, efficient.

“[P]ursuing the freedoms I've talked about today is, I believe, the right thing to do,” she said. “But I also believe it's the smart thing to do. By advancing this agenda, we align our principles, our economic goals, and our strategic priorities.”

Freedom to connect as foreign policy: Not only true to the spirit of the First Amendment, but a job creator too.

How would the State Department go about these goals? Clinton pledged:

We are also supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship. We are providing funds to groups around the world to make sure that those tools get to the people who need them in local languages, and with the training they need to access the internet safely.

In January 2010, this was the avowed diplomatic program of the United States: to create and fund social network-like software in nations that censored their media. This was what 21st-century statecraft would look like.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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