Last week, the Trump administration — in the midst of a global pandemic, an economic crisis, a presidential campaign and a popular uprising — found time to sack the president of what is perhaps the best incubator of privacy tools in the world.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan Open Technology Fund (OTF) supports (or maybe, supported) projects that keep snoops and spies at bay, ranging from internet service providers to the Russian government.
Michael Pack, new CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, fired OTF President Laura Cunningham and the group’s board of directors during his second week on the job. He also sacked the highly respected heads of Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and the Middle Eastern Broadcasting Networks. No reason was given. The director and deputy director of Voice of America resigned early last week under heavy criticism from the White House. While the departures of these broadcast leaders have rightly received considerable media attention, OTF is not as well known.
The mission of the Open Technology Fund is to “support open technologies and communities that increase free expression, circumvent censorship, and obstruct repressive surveillance as a way to promote human rights and open societies.” It funds the invention of tools that allow people — journalists, human rights activists and everyone else — to browse the uncensored internet, talk on the phone, message each other, organize their communities, and publish news articles without fear of a knock on the door. It also funds security audits of outside, human rights-oriented privacy tools to help make them as safe as possible.
OTF funds projects that help people in China leap the Great Firewall and that let activists in Iran use the internet without government surveillance. It has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress (its mandated funder) over its eight years of existence. Though its staff numbers fewer than 15, OTF’s impact is profound. Over 2 billion people in over 60 countries use technology funded by OTF every day to safely access the internet free from censorship and repressive surveillance.
Signal, for instance, is an OTF-incubated phone app that enables users to have private, encrypted phone calls, messages and video chat. Members of Congress and members of the White House staff use it. Human rights activists use it. Reporters use it, from Philadelphia to Timbuktu. [Editor’s note: It’s true!] You may already use Signal, as well —it’s currently the gold standard for cell phone privacy. Yet without early funding from the Open Technology Fund, it might not exist.
OTF funds “open” technology in which the source code or blue prints are available to the public. Open source software uses code that is literally published on the internet so that anyone can check to make sure that it hasn’t been tampered with, for instance, by an ill-intentioned government. The code for Signal’s app is published right on GitHub. Yet OTF’s transparency goes farther than the open source technology it funds. Its grant application process is transparent and its record of funded projects is listed right on its website.
Veteran digital rights advocates are worried that political partisans intend to dismantle OTF and use the money to fund pet projects that no one can check. But OTF is most powerful — and most valuable — as it exists: innovative, transparent, nonpartisan and grounded in the best American values.
Pack’s actions have inspired a bipartisan backlash, and you can join it. Republicans and Democrats have issued statements and letters supporting OTF. Sen. Bob Menendez, top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has called on the state department’s acting inspector general, Stephen Akard, to investigate Pack’s actions. And on Tuesday, OTF sued, asserting that Pack lacks the legal authority to dismiss its leadership.
You can sign this letter organized by digital rights advocates and read this statement penned by Republican members of Congress who support OTF. Even better? Phone members of Congress directly and ping them on Twitter: Tell Congress to #SaveInternetFreedom by protecting OTF. Menendez (@SenatorMenendez), Sen. James Risch (@SenatorRisch), Sen. Marco Rubio (@marcorubio), Sen. Ben Cardin (@SenatorCardin), and Rep. Nita Lowey (@nitalowey) are a great place to start.