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A new Trump appointee has put internet freedom projects in crisis mode

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‘There are so many countries and individuals who need this support right now,’ says former OTF president

Former OTF CEO Libby Liu.
Photo: Flickr / USC Public Diplomacy

One of the US government’s strongest forces for internet freedom is in danger, and supporters are calling on the public for help. The Open Technology Fund (OTF), a small US organization devoted to protecting digital speech across the world, has helped support nearly all of the most prominent encryption projects at various points — including Signal, Tails, Qubes, and the Tor Project. But after the abrupt firing of the fund’s entire leadership team, current recipients say their contractually promised funding is now at risk.

“Very concretely, this would mean that we wouldn’t be able to upgrade the app’s security architecture, putting our users at risk,” Raphael Mimoun, who operates the evidence-protection app Tella, told The Verge. “Without OTF support, it’s unclear how and where technologists and activists would meet, and whether the internet freedom community would even survive.”

The OTF has found itself in danger after the appointment of Michael Pack as CEO of its overseeing agency, the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM). A longtime ally of Steve Bannon, Pack has made severe changes across the USAGM, which also manages Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Those changes came to a head at OTF last weekend, with the abrupt resignation of OTF CEO Libby Liu.

“I have become aware of lobbying efforts to convince the new USAGM CEO to interfere with the [2020 OTF budget],” Liu wrote in an email on June 13, announcing her impending departure on Wednesday, first obtained by Vice. “While I am still permitted to stay in my seat, I will continue to work to protect this organization.”

Just four days later, Pack abruptly fired Liu rather than allowing her to serve her remaining term, along with the president and the entire board of OTF. Pack hasn’t given a precise justification for the firings, but many of the outgoing leaders claim it is part of a broader move to abandon many of the fund’s existing projects.

The day after the firings, digital rights groups began circulating a petition to “save internet freedom tech,” pushing for Congress to preserve the fund’s preexisting budget commitments through the end of the year. As the petition’s s see it, the new leadership is trying to turn the fund into a “tool of the Trump administration.”

“If this happens,” the petition reads, “it will be catastrophic for internet freedom around the world, and will put thousands of journalists and human rights defenders at risk.”

For supporters, the stakes are much higher than a single organization. For eight years, the Open Technology Fund has been a cornerstone of the internet freedom community, funding circumvention tools like Signal, Tails, and other anti-surveillance and anti-censorship projects. Launched within USAGM (previously called the Broadcasting Board of Governors), the goal was to create tools that would enable free and open discourse online — and implicitly undermine regimes that rely on internet censorship to keep their populace in check. As part of that mission, the fund has sponsored projects across more than 60 countries, ranging from specific apps to broader projects that built out the functionality of Tor.

But a new lobbying effort is pushing to drastically limit OTF’s efforts, focusing entirely on projects that circumvent Chinese internet censorship at the expense of OTF’s traditional global focus. In a pair of letters sent last week, two outside coalitions sent letters calling for all OTF funding to be redirected to four specific projects — Ultrasurf, Freegate, Lantern, and Psiphon — chosen for their usefulness in circumventing China’s “Great Firewall.” It would be a drastic narrowing of OTF’s scope, and for grantees, it’s an abrupt clawback of money that had already been contractually promised.

“There are so many countries and individuals who need this support right now,” says Laura Cunningham, who served as president of the fund until last week. “China is important but focusing exclusively on censorship in China misses a huge part of the picture.”

If successful, that shift would also funnel money to groups that are politically sympathetic to the president. One of the letters was co-sponsored by the DC branch of Falun Gong, a religious sect and Chinese dissident group that has become vocally pro-Trump in recent years. Two of the projects mentioned in the letter — Ultrasurf and Freegate — were created by practitioners of Falun Gong and maintain ties to the group. (The other two projects are already recipients of OTF funding.) If the letter’s recommendations are carried through, it would mean millions of dollars in funding for the group. Through its Epoch Times outlet, Falun Gong has become vocally pro-Trump in recent years, building an immense following on Facebook and YouTube while promoting anti-vax and QAnon conspiracy theories.

For OTF stalwarts, the problem isn’t the projects’ Falun Gong ties, but the software itself. Ultrasurf hasn’t open-sourced its code or submitted to OTF’s requested audits, one of the core requirements of the project. A leading proxy service in the mid-2000s, Ultrasurf has drawn criticism in recent years for its content filtering (which blocks pornography) and its ability to surveil user traffic, which is often impossible by design in competing tools.

“We need to know that every technology that we’re putting in the hands of a human rights defender is as effective and secure as possible,” Cunningham says. “And if we’re not able to verify that, either through open-source code or an open-source security audit, then we’re putting people at risk.”

The USAGM did not respond to a request for comment, but in a statement the day after the OTF firings, the CEO laid out an ambitious agenda for the agency, including boosting morale and maintaining the agency’s independence.

“As Lincoln would have counseled, we need to counter lies with the truth,” Pack wrote. “We need to make clear to the world the ideals that inspire America.”

Update 1:03PM ET: Updated to clarify the timeline of Liu’s resignation, as well as OTF’s status as an independent non-profit rather than a government agency.