U.S. State Department will Fund BBC

Six-figure ‘investment’ will be used to combat censorship of TV and internet services, ‘educate’ Chinese and Iranians.

March 20, 2011

The BBC World Service is to receive a “significant” sum of money from the US government to help combat the blocking of TV and internet services in countries including Iran and China.

In what the BBC said is the first deal of its kind, an agreement is expected to be signed later this month that will see US state department money – understood to be a low six-figure sum – given to the World Service to invest in developing anti-jamming technology and software.

The funding is also expected to be used to educate people in countries with state censorship in how to circumnavigate the blocking of internet and TV services.

It is understood the US government has decided the reach of the World Service is such that it makes investment worthwhile.

The US government money comes as the World Service faces a 16% cut in its annual grant from the Foreign Office – a £46m reduction in its £236.7m budget over three years that will lead to about 650 job cuts. The money will be channelled through the World Service’s charitable arm, the World Service Trust.

The deal, which is expected to be formally announced on International Press Freedom Day, 3 May, follows an increase in incidents of interference with World Service output across the globe, according to its controller of strategy and business, Jim Egan.

BBC Persian television, which launched in early 2009 and airs in Iran and its neighbouring countries, has experienced numerous instances of jamming. The BBC Arabic TV news service has also been jammed in recent weeks across various parts of north Africa during the recent uprisings in Egypt and Libya.

“Governments who have an interest in denying people information particularly at times of tension and upheaval are keen to do this and it is a particular problem now,” said Egan.

Another area in which the BBC World Service is expected to use the US money is continuing its development of early warning software.

This will allow it to detect jamming sooner than it does currently where it relies on reports from users on the ground.

“Software like this helps monitor dips in traffic which act as an early warning of jamming, and it can be more effective than relying on people contacting us and telling us they cannot access the services,” said Egan.

The BBC also expects to use state department money to help combat internet censorship by establishing proxy servers that give the impression a computer located in one country is in fact operating in another, thereby circumnavigating attempts by repressive governments to block websites.

“China has become quite expert at blocking websites and one could say it has become something of an export industry for them – a lot of countries are keen to follow suit,” said Egan.

“We have evidence of Libya and Egypt blocking the internet and satellite signals in recent weeks.”

Egan added that the battle against jamming is likely to be an ongoing one because repressive countries are likely to develop methods to counter any anti-censorship technology that is developed.

“It is a bit of a game of cat and mouse,” said a BBC source.