But now all of that is under threat, after Michael Pack, a Trump appointee and close ally of Steve Bannon, took control of USAGM in June. Pack has ousted the OTF’s leadership, removed its bipartisan board, and replaced it with Trump loyalists, including Bethany Kozma, an anti-transgender activist. One reason the OTF managed to gain the trust of technologists and activists around the world is because, as its name suggests, it invested largely in open-source technology. By definition, open-source software’s source code is publicly available, meaning it can be studied, vetted, and in many cases contributed to by anyone in the world. This transparency makes it possible for experts to study code to see if it has, for example, backdoors or vulnerabilities that would allow for governments to compromise the software’s security, potentially putting users at risk of being surveilled or identified. Now, groups linked to Pack and Bannon have been pressing for the funding of closed-source technology, which is antithetical to the OTF’s work over the last eight years.
Pack is being pressed to fund Freegate and Ultrasurf, “two little-known apps that allow users to circumvent internet censorship in repressive regimes but currently have very small user bases inside China,” reports Vice. “These apps are not widely trusted by internet freedom experts and activists, according to six experts who spoke to VICE News. That the OTF would pivot its funding from trusted, open-source tech to more obscure, closed-source tech has alarmed activists around the world and has resulted in open revolt among OTF’s former leadership.”
More than half a dozen experts who spoke to VICE News “said the apps’ code is out of date, dangerously vulnerable to compromise, and lacks the user base to allow it to effectively scale even if they secured government funding.”