The Issue

The Open Technology Fund (OTF) is a critical funding partner in the global fight for internet freedom. Today, more than two billion people around the world use technologies supported by the non-profit’s work to communicate securely, circumvent censorship, and combat authoritarianism. In short, OTF serves as a beacon of hope furthering the interests of human rights, internet freedom, and democratic values in an increasingly repressive online environment. Yet shockingly, the bipartisan U.S.-based organization is currently under threat from its own government. If a new political appointee has his way, the goodwill and trust that has taken years for OTF to build will be wiped away and dismantled.

What Happened

While Congress was in the process of introducing the OTF Authorization Act, which would have further enhanced the organization’s independence and long-term sustainability, the Trump Administration nominated a new head for US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), Michael Pack. Pack, a known ally of Steve Bannon, was finally confirmed on June 4, 2020 (his controversial nomination had been pending for nearly two years). His appointment led to immediate resignations within the agency.

The new leader of USAGM quickly set about dismantling the leadership of the agency’s various organizations. On June 17, in what was dubbed the “Wednesday night massacre,” Pack dismissed the heads of Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and OTF (CEO Libby Liu). He then attempted to unilaterally disband OTF’s entire bipartisan Board of Directors - replacing trusted and experienced professionals with the likes of Bethany Kozma, an anti-trans and anti-abortion activist with no support in the internet freedom community whatsoever. Just a day later, Pack also attempted to fire OTF President and acting CEO Laura Cunningham.

The Response

Hundreds of community-based organizations immediately spoke out in protest. Pack’s reckless moves were also swiftly condemned on both sides of the political aisle. Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX), the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, immediately called the actions “troubling,” saying he hopes “CEO Pack will find time very soon to explain to me and my colleagues on the House Foreign Affairs Committee his reasons for making these decisions.” In a joint press release, McCaul and Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) reiterated that they were “troubled” by the unconsulted termination of OTF’s President and, given her impressive track record, were “concerned about the future of the organization.” Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for the acting Inspector General of the State Department to investigate whether the firings violated applicable rules of independence.

On June 23, 2020, OTF and members of the organization’s Board of Directors filed a complaint in the District Court of the District of Columbia seeking injunctive relief to nullify Pack’s reckless attempts to fire OTF officers and directors. The legal challenge, which asserts Pack’s actions broke the law by breaching the statutory “firewall” designed to keep OTF and its sister organizations independent from the government, became immediate national news (and is currently on appeal at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals). The following day, a coalition of U.S. Senators and Representatives demanded answers from Pack regarding claims that he is "seeking to change the fundamental mission of OTF and to redirect millions of dollars in OTF funding to technologies that were previously denied funding."

On July 1, 2020, a bipartisan coalition of seven Senators – including prominent Republicans Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, and Susan Collins – sent a "scathing" letter to Pack expressing their “deep concern” about his unilateral actions and vowing to conduct “a thorough review of USAGM’s funding to ensure that United States international broadcasting is not politicized and the agency is able to fully and effectively carry out its core mission." Two days later, a group of key Representatives warned: "If the firewall that protects USAGM’s editorial independence is eroded, it will make USAGM ineffective. Rather than providing a counter-point to autocratic regimes, it would call into question the U.S.’s commitment to democratic values, and risk reinforcing misperceptions that USAGM media outlets are simply state propaganda, no different from Russia Today or others around the world."

On July 21, 2020, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals granted OTF's motion for injunction pending appeal in its lawsuit challenging Pack’s attempted purge of the non-profit’s Board of Directors and key officers. The ruling, a significant win for OTF, temporarily enjoins Pack from taking any other action to control OTF and confirms the status of the organization's Board of Directors and acting CEO Laura Cunningham pending resolution of the appeal.

Despite the unanimous Court order, Pack and USAGM have continued to withhold $20 million in Congressionally allocated internet freedom funds from OTF. As a result, on July 31, OTF was forced to issue stop-work orders to 49 of its 60 internet freedom projects, impacting 80% of the organization's critical work helping human rights advocates, journalists, and members of the most vulnerable communities.

What's Next?

This complicated story is moving fast - so check out the updates and press links to make sure you have the latest on this critical issue. The primary concern is that Pack will attempt to dismantle OTF and/or reallocate the organization’s funds. As has been reported, there are fears that the lobbying effort to allocate OTF resources to closed-source, private tech companies may now be successful. This would be a huge loss for the internet freedom community - the effects of which would reverberate for years to come. In the words of the Editorial Board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "OTF is a noble endeavor and its integrity should be preserved, for the sake of a free press, the course of liberty and the defense of oppressed people throughout the world."

So, now that you know what's happened and what's at stake, please join the hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals and sign this letter urging Congress to take action.

Then help spread the word! Together we can #SaveInternetFreedom and #SaveOTF

Background

The Open Technology Fund (OTF) is an independent non-profit that supports projects developing open and accessible technologies for the promotion of human rights and open societies, and helping advance safe access to global communications networks. As an intermediary funder, OTF is primarily funded and overseen by the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) - an independent agency with a longstanding history of independence and a mission “to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” In turn, each year OTF provides roughly $15 million in funding for internet freedom technologies and is slated to have a $21 million annual budget going forward. The impact OTF has been able to achieve with these funds, through regular open calls and rigorous transparency, is astonishing.

Everyday, journalists, political dissidents, human rights defenders, and members of the most vulnerable communities across the globe trust their lives to OTF-supported technology and organizing, including:

  • Signal: Widely accepted as the most secure messaging app available, Signal also provides the security technology behind WhatsApp. The ubiquity of encrypted messaging would not be possible without Signal and their primary funding from OTF.
  • Tor Project: Secure, anonymous web browsing tech that also provides the underlying technical infrastructure for a host of other critical organizations.
  • Localization Lab: A grassroots global effort to ensure that internet freedom tools are translated and localized into hundreds of different languages - finally giving non-English speakers true access to essential technologies.
  • Center for Digital Resilience: An incident response platform for civil society organizations to report, coordinate, and respond to digital security attacks and misinformation.
  • The Internet Freedom Festival: OTF is the primary funder for this annual conference - the global home of internet freedom activists.

Started in 2012, the OTF is committed to advancing global internet freedom. It supports the research, development, implementation, and sustainability of technologies that facilitate the free flow of information, increase at-risk users’ digital security, and enable free expression. In doing so, OTF is committed to supporting open-source technologies. A shift to closed-source would not only limit the number of people around the world who are able to access internet freedom technologies but also make them less secure, jeopardizing the safety of users and the global public's trust in U.S.-supported internet freedom technologies. A narrow approach that only focuses on circumvention also fails to recognize numerous threats to internet freedom and the much larger set of actions that are required to help those being targeted by repressive governments. These include support for research and measurement to better understand repressive governments' censorship and surveillance practices as well as training, translation, and outreach programs that enable users in different communities to better utilize internet freedom technologies.

OTF has always utilized an open, fair, competitive, and evidence-based award process to conduct a rigorous review of internet freedom projects and technologies. This includes a 35-member independent Advisory Council with participants from academia, industry, and civil society providing expertise and feedback on OTF's funding decisions. OTF has also funded over 100 independent third-party security audits of internet freedom technologies to ensure only those with the highest security standards are supported with U.S. government funds.

Prior to Pack's reckless actions, OTF's expert Board of Directors included:

  • Chairman Kenneth R. Weinstein (President and CEO, Hudson Institute)
  • Dr. Leon Aron (Resident Scholar and Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute)
  • T. Ulrich Brechbuhl (Counselor of the U.S. State Department)
  • Ambassador (ret.) Ryan Crocker (Diplomat in Residence at Princeton University)
  • Mr. Michael Kempner (Founder, President, and CEO of MWW)
  • Ambassador Karen Kornbluh (Director of German Marshall Fund's Technology Policy program)
  • William Schneider (Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute)
  • Mr. Ben Scott (Executive Director, Reset and Advisory on Policy and Advocacy, Luminate)

Pack is attempting to replace these highly trusted individuals with a group of individuals who have no support or experience in the internet freedom and digital rights communities. His new Board would include:

  • Chairman Michael Pack (CEO, USAGM)
  • Jonathan Alexandre (Senior Counsel, Liberty Counsel Action)
  • Robert Bowes (Senior Advisor to the Secretary, HUD)
  • Bethany Kozma (Deputy Chief of Staff, USAID)
  • Rachel Semmel (Communications Director, OMB)
  • Emily Newman (Chief of Staff, USAGM)

This cannot be allowed to happen. OTF’s essential work has long received strong bipartisan support in Congress. But unless Congress speaks up now, the new leadership of the USAGM could shut down the program and the U.S. (and the world) will lose one of its most effective tools to support democracy and freedom of expression.

Click here to help #SaveInternetFreedom today.