Written by Jeff Stone
Internet freedom advocates are urging U.S. lawmakers to protect a small government-backed nonprofit that’s funded a generation of secure technologies meant to safeguard data in repressive countries.
The organization, the Open Technology Fund, is an 8-year-old outfit that helps develop open and accessible technologies with an eye on promoting human rights abroad. It’s a subsidiary of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, overseer of the government operations designed to beam American news into foreign countries via outlets like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
After a generation of quietly investing in technologies like encrypted messaging app Signal and anonymity tools like Tails and Tor, the future of the Open Technology Fund suddenly is in doubt. The new CEO of the Agency for Global Media, Michael Pack, a Trump administration appointee and a longtime ally of Steve Bannon, has fired the head of the OTF and the heads of four media agencies, raising concerns that Pack aims to re-shape the traditionally nonpartisan agency into a mouthpiece for political propaganda.
An online petition urging Congress to prohibit the dismantling of the OTF and ensure that the U.S. government continues to fund internet freedom efforts abroad had attracted signatures from 498 organizations and 3,848 individuals as of June 30.
When OTF was created under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the organization was focused primarily on building tools to skirt obtrusive data collection in traditionally adversarial nations, like China and Iran. Since then, OTF also has made progress in countries that share some diplomatic interests with the United States, such as Pakistan, Morocco and Lebanon.
There’s now anxiety over whether OTF will abandon worthy efforts in U.S.-allied countries, and instead prioritize work that fits the Trump administration’s political agenda.
“I’m concerned that this will be a step backward, and only focus on the countries that fit U.S. foreign policy,” said Jillian C. York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“OTF has had a realistic understanding that people don’t like the U.S. government,” said York. “Even in the beginning, when this started, there was a burgeoning recognition that the money wasn’t just going to come from anywhere. If you’re in Pakistan, which is nominally democratic but not robustly so, and you’re a tool developer there concerned about the government, where are you going to get the money?”
Neither the Open Technology Fund nor the U.S. Agency for Global Media responded to requests for comment on this story.
In a resignation letter, outgoing OTF chief executive Libby Liu also said she had become aware of a lobbying effort to redirect OTF funds from open-source technologies, which are transparent about their code and capabilities, into closed-source tools that are more difficult to verify as secure. While both Signal and WhatsApp offer end-to-end encryption, for instance, Signal makes its underlying technology available for review, while WhatsApp code is kept sealed by its parent company, Facebook.
The political drama already is creating uncertainty for the global technologists who rely on open source tools and OTF funding to safeguard information in countries where authorities have stifled freedom of expression.
“If anything happens to OTF then our work will be definitely impacted,” said Nighat Dad, founder of the Digital Rights Foundation, a research organization supporting internet freedom in Pakistan. “It will be a failure for the entire global rights community.”
With funding from OTF, the Digital Rights Foundation provides security training to Pakistani journalists, activists, religious minorities and other groups vulnerable to the country’s Prevention of Electronic Crimes law, which was enacted in 2016.
In the name of stopping terrorism, the law enables authorities to censor speech online, collect users’ personal data without a warrant, retain that information without oversight and criminalizes websites’ terms of service violations, among other contentious regulations. Pakistani nationals living outside the country also are subject to its jurisdiction, according to an Electronic Frontier Foundation analysis.
Complicating matters further is that, of Pakistan’s population of 200 million, digital literacy is relatively low, meaning few people understand why effective security measures are so urgent, Nighat Dad said. The Digital Rights Foundation is working to change that by conducting regular security trainings and organizing a cyber harassment help line, which has provided help, including legal support, to 4,000 people since its inception.
Much of the work prioritizes the use of open-source technologies. If Pakistani authorities force a closed-source software vendor to install a surveillance backdoor, or demand information about specific individuals, it’s unlikely the affected people ever will learn about it. One way DRF trainers illustrate the need for open-source technologies is to cite Facebook’s transparency numbers, which often include Pakistan among the countries that submit the most censorship requests, or requests for user data.
Such examples result in more people using Signal, Dad said, and protecting themselves from the fear and self-censorship that occurs when authorities are collecting vast amounts of data.
“We can’t trust any [virtual private network] services, only Tor,” she added. “The anonymity is something that a lot of Pakistanis believe in because of the problematic laws that exist here…If OTF’s mission changes, it will directly affect thousands of people.”