Imagine you are a pro-democracy protester on the streets of a repressive government. You’ve got your cellphone and you are messaging your friends. In the crowd near you, the police start making arrests. Fearing the government will confiscate your phone and investigate your contacts, you push a “panic button” on your phone. It deletes the contacts in your address book and sends out an alert. Such an app wasn’t readily available so the U.S. State Department, acting as a venture capitalist, decided to build one.
The State Department tells TechCrunch government funded work is underway to build an Android version of this “panic button” app. No release date has been set. Another version designed to work on low-cost Nokia phones, more common in the developing world, is being considered. No iPhone app is planned for now.
The special app, first reported by Reuters, is part of an initiative to promote new technologies for social activists. So far, the State Department has funded $22 million in “Internet freedom programming.” The money goes to innovators in the form of small grants ranging from a few to tens of thousands of dollars. TechCrunch asked who was getting the money, but due to the sensitive nature of the project, the government won’t disclose names.
An open, competitive bid process was used to award the grants. While the government isn’t looking for more help building these apps, they may have future projects designed to advance “Internet Freedom” in other ways. Keep an eye on www.grants.gov for any additional info. Some of the past program objectives have included developing technology “to enable users in closed societies to get around firewalls and filters in acutely hostile Internet environments” and training bloggers and activists to safely and anonymously participate in online forums.
The effort is another example of how the administration sees the important role social media and technology has played in global politics. In 2009, the U.S. asked Twitter to delay maintenance work so real-time information about the Iranian protests could continue. The White House has also called on Egypt and Libya to restore internet blackouts.
The State Department says it’s not just writing checks. The government is trying to use venture capitalist techniques to produce the best results. No, the goal is not to make 10x on the investment. But, the government is supporting a diverse portfolio of innovation rather than just funding big established technologies. It’s providing knowledge and connections, not just cash. And they are investing to incubate a new community focussed on the intersection of technology and human rights.
Of course with any well intentioned program, there could be negative side effects. What happens if the panic button app gets into the wrong hands, such as drug dealers or terrorists? A State Department spokesperson tells TechCrunch it’s a legitimate concern and they are taking that into account when planning the distribution and publicity of the app. It seems TechCrunch readers won’t be a problem.