Why the technology projects funded by the U.S. government matter–and what must be done to save them from partisan politics.
At a time when the world needs them most, the valued independent media organizations of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) are under hyper-partisan attack. Projects under the Open Technology Fund (OTF), which USAGM has supported over the last ten years, have improved privacy and security for every user of the internet the world over. But President Trump’s appointment of Michael Pack as the CEO of USAGM is an existential threat to OTF’s work, and the latest assault by the President on free speech and internet openness.
In Pack’s first weeks in office, he fired the heads of Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, followed by the leadership and board at OTF. While these firings all show a disdain for free speech, the dismissals at OTF threaten decades-long efforts to protect the core security of the internet, help people in repressive countries communicate confidentially, and facilitate access to independent reporting.
OTF plays a unique role in supporting technology critical to the health of the open and secure internet. It funds cost-free open-source software used to protect vulnerable and targeted communities’ online expression, both in private and in public, and requires that that software is audited for vulnerabilities. OTF also provides support for training people in how to use these tools, and for researching emerging issues and new threats to freedom of information and expression. Just as importantly, OTF is part of a larger community of organizations, initiatives, and technologists working towards an internet that serves democracy and the public interest.
OTF projects benefit users in authoritarian regimes and democratic societies alike: they help journalists protect their sources with secure messaging, LGBTQI communities plan parades without fear of government interference, and consumers bank and book medical appointments securely on the web. OTF’s approach to supporting an internet that serves the public interest and protects civil liberties is also crucial. Its projects produce code that is open-source and auditable; anyone can review the code for assurance that it is secure. In the face of legislative efforts across the globe to weaken the right to whisper, OTF supports strong encryption. Decisions about the projects OTF funds are made by a transparent and trusted community of volunteer advisors, and have been grounded in the technical expertise provided by the (now former) board of directors to its global community of practitioners.
Thanks to many OTF-funded projects, including Signal, Tor, Let’s Encrypt, Deflect, Lantern, and the Open Observatory, more than two billion people in over 60 countries can access the internet free from censorship and repressive surveillance. Supported projects like Localization Lab in turn ensure that people can use those tools in their native language.
Today, OTF and the vital programs it funds are gravely under threat. There are serious concerns that the new leadership of USAGM, OTF’s funding agency, will dismantle OTF and redirect its funding to a narrow set of projects that do not reflect the non-partisan, expert-driven, competitive and open-source approach to project selection that has made OTF a beacon for internet freedom around the world. Earlier this month, the Fund’s CEO Libby Liu raised concerns about lobbying efforts to drastically narrow the scope of projects funded by OTF. She was fired four days later, along with the president of OTF and its entire governing board.
Congress must act to stop this partisan takeover of OTF and its essential work to promote free expression in repressive regimes around the world. Last week, CDT joined hundreds of other human rights and civil liberties organizations around the world in calling on Congress to protect anti-censorship and free expression-enabling technology. We urged Congress to pass the Open Technology Fund Authorization Act, and ensure that OTF remains a bipartisan organization committed to democracy and the public interest. USAGM must honor OTF’s existing spending commitments for FY2019 and 2020, and require all U.S. government internet freedom funds to be awarded via an open, fair, competitive and evidence-based process. Going forward, we must continue to ensure that OTF’s funds are used to support technologies that are fully open-source and subject to regular security audits, to ensure the most effective and secure use of U.S. funds.
Michael Pack’s actions at USAGM are already the subject of a lawsuit and Congressional inquiry. As this story unfolds, it is important to understand that U.S. progress in its decade-long campaign for worldwide internet freedom is at risk. Governments, including the U.S. and the 31 other nations comprising the Freedom Online Coalition, must step up to support training and deployment of accessible, secure, and open-source communications tools for at-risk communities globally. Without long-term vision, leadership, and financial support, the world risks losing these technologies that underlie internet freedom at a time when the threats against it have never been greater. Internet infrastructure companies should allocate no-strings research and development funding to core security and privacy features of web and internet use, as well as training and deployment of accessible, open-source secure communications tools for at-risk communities globally.
We hope you’ll join us in the fight to protect the Open Technology Fund and support efforts to sustain technologies that preserve an open internet in repressive regimes around the world. To join the letter to Congress and find other ways to get involved, visit https://saveinternetfreedom.tech/.