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US-Backed 'Backbone of Internet Freedom' Entity Faces Possible Disruption

FILE -- The U.S. Agency for Global Media logo at Voice of America, in Washington, D.C., Nov. 22, 2019. (VOA)
FILE -- The U.S. Agency for Global Media logo at Voice of America, in Washington, D.C., Nov. 22, 2019. (VOA)

A little-known nonprofit organization backed by the U.S. government has become the center of a maelstrom as the Trump administration changes its leadership.

The Open Technology Fund, an independent, private nonprofit corporation, receives funding from the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), the agency that oversees Voice of America. Since its founding in 2012, OTF has helped fund some of the most important digital tools available to dissidents, activists and others as repressive governments worldwide beef up their ability to surveil and block their own citizens.

But the future of the organization, which has a 2020 annual budget of about $21 million, may be at stake, according to digital rights groups worldwide.

A change of leadership at USAGM that removed its chief executive, president and board threatens to upend the organization that rights groups say has become the backbone of the internet freedom community. They fear a new OTF will move away from supporting “open-source” projects -- apps, software and technology made with code that all can see and test -- and instead turn to “closed-source” technologies, making it harder for activists, journalists and others to know whether they can trust it.

In June, Michael Pack, the new chief executive of USAGM, fired several of the heads of organizations that report to him. Pack removed Libby Liu, the chief executive and co-founder of OTF, and Laura Cunningham, the president of the corporation, and replaced the OTF board. Funding was frozen during the restructure.

Four former board members, including two former U.S. ambassadors, attempted to block the changes via a lawsuit against USAGM, but the suit was denied by a federal judge. They are appealing that decision.

More than 500 organizations, including the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation and Mozilla, the maker of the Firefox internet browser, have signed a petition asking the U.S. Congress to look at recent changes at OTF.

“There are serious concerns that the new leadership within the USAGM will seek to dismantle OTF and re-allocate all of its U.S. government funding to support a narrow set of anti-censorship tools without a transparent and open review process,” the petition reads.

USAGM declined multiple requests for comment.

A tech arms race

OTF was created as a program in Radio Free Asia to finance early-stage digital tools, before becoming an independent nonprofit corporation in September 2019. In addition to the $21 million annual grant from USAGM, OTF also receives private funds.

Digital rights groups, activists and tech startups can apply for funding for projects via OTF’s website. For example, more than 50 organizations received money from its Internet Freedom Fund, which awards contracts between $50,000 and $200,000.

In addition to providing rapid-response funding for activists facing immediate censorship threats, OTF trains people worldwide on digital safety, sponsors yearlong fellowships, runs several laboratories on technology, legal and other internet freedom areas, performs security audits of technology tools, and translates new apps and software into more than 200 languages.

Some of OTF’s awardees are among the most widely used technologies among dissidents and activists. Between 2013 and 2016, OTF awarded more than $3 million to help fund Signal technology, which provides end-to-end encryption for communications. The same technology is now part of the foundation of WhatsApp, the Facebook messaging app.

During the same time frame, OTF awarded $3 million to Tor, which allows people to anonymously access news and information blocked by their governments.

Other projects included Let’s Encrypt, which allows organizations and small businesses to protect websites against hackers and cyber criminals, and WireGuard, a virtual private network (VPN) code that closed vulnerabilities that could be exploited by repressive regimes, according to technologists.

Question of Scale

OTF is not without its critics. Competing visions both inside and outside of the organization, including on what OTF should be doing, predate the arrival of Pack and the new leadership team.

These include whether it should focus on financing circumvention tools that help USAGM’s TV, radio and digital programming and news circumvent government firewalls to reach more than 300 million people worldwide, a mission some argue is aligned with a federally funded international broadcast agency. Or whether OTF should continue handing out financial grants to people building anti-surveillance tools to help activists on the ground communicate and evade government detection.

While OTF has accomplished a lot, it can do more, said Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation, a human rights organization named after her father, Rep. Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California. She is also a past chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“We believe there is a potential to bring down the Great Firewalls, writ large, and that we should also be funding large-scale circumvention tools with the ability to free vast numbers of people from what are, essentially, digital prisons,” Lantos Swett said. “It’s not an either/or scenario – open-source versus circumvention tools – but I believe a little bit of funding for the latter could yield tremendous results. China is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to shore up its firewall, so we should be willing to spend tens of millions to punch holes in it.”

OTF has not previously funded large-scale projects but was looking into it, said people familiar with its operations. An additional issue, they say, is that some of the circumvention technology that the Lantos Foundation and others are promoting come with “closed-source technology,” which makes it harder for people to audit, test and trust.

Chris Riley, director of government relations at Mozilla and an early advisory council member of OTF, said the group’s promotion of open-sourced technology has been critical.

“OTF's focus on open-source tools and the open-source developer community has been particularly valuable for the security and availability of these tools, for those who most need them,” Riley said. “A change in strategy for OTF away from open source would put significant parts of the secure, open internet, and the human rights and lives that depend on it, at greater risk.”

In a July 2 interview with the site RealClearPolitics, Pack declined to discuss OTF but said he is still evaluating OTF’s role and has no plans to dismantle the organization.

The interim head of OTF, James Miles, 78, is a former secretary of state of South Carolina. An attorney, Miles practiced labor and employment law but doesn’t appear to have technology or media experience. Miles did not respond to a VOA interview request about his new role.

The tools for digital security

For digital activists, OTF’s turmoil comes at a time when protesters in places such as Hong Kong face new crackdowns and surveillance.

There is “an arms race” of digital tools between repressive regimes and dissidents and activists who are operating inside of them, said Bill Marczak, a research fellow at Citizen Lab, which is based at the University of Toronto, and one of the signatories of the petition.

“There’s a benefit to make sure people have access to digital security when they need it,” said Marczak, who in 2014 received a one-year fellowship from OTF focusing on technology to detect servers used in hacking attacks.

Raphael Mimoun, founder of Horizontal, is currently under contract with OTF for work improving Tella, a free app that encrypts photos, videos and other content on mobile devices.

Despite the changes at OTF, Mimoun said he expects the organization will honor his firm’s contract for $53,000.

But it’s the future he worries about. The Tella app is available on Android phones but not iPhones, a project that Mimoun might turn to OTF for funding.

“In the long run, it will be a disaster if OTF was taken in a direction and hollowed out in what it does so well,” he said.