A few weeks ago, I was shocked to learn that the US government had begun dismantling the Open Technology Fund (OTF), a major funder of open source tools like Signal, Tor, and Tails that allow internet users to circumvent censorship and protect themselves from online spying.
The organization’s entire leadership team had been summarily fired by Michael Pack, an ally of Steve Bannon and the new Trump-approved CEO of the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM). The firings were just a small piece of a bigger reconfiguring of the organizations administered by USAGM, which include government-run media networks Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. But as someone who has watched OTF thrive for the past eight years as a member of its Advisory Council, this stood out as an attack against the organization that gave birth to some of our most important anti-censorship and privacy tools.
When I began studying online censorship in 2008, it was not a particularly well-known phenomenon in the United States. Elsewhere in the world, however, was a different story: In places like China, Tunisia, Syria, Vietnam, Iran, and Thailand, a heavily restricted Internet was the norm. Individuals in a number of countries were commonly prohibited from accessing information about human rights, foreign news publications, social media websites, religious content, and information about sexuality and sexual health.
In those days, it wasn’t easy to circumvent web blocks. While organizations like Tor had long provided anonymous and uncensored access to the Internet, they did so on shoestring budgets. Basic web proxies were often free but worked poorly, while paid VPNs required a credit card—something out of reach for many web users worldwide. Back then it seemed like a divided, Balkanized web was our global shared future.
Then, in January 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech at The Newseum introducing Internet freedom as a core component of “21st century statecraft.” Acknowledging information networks as “a new nervous system for our planet,” Clinton spoke to the need to “synchronize our technological progress with our principles,” and laid out a plan to fight online censorship, connect more people to global information networks, and find diplomatic solutions to strengthen cyber security.
That plan came with funding, first through the State Department’s Department of Democracy, Rights, and Labor (DRL), and later joined by OTF, launched under Radio Free Asia and funded through USAGM (then called the Broadcasting Board of Governors).
That funding, as anyone in the Internet freedom community can attest, has altered the landscape of the Internet for millions upon millions of users around the world by providing support for technology that enables users to leap over firewalls and protect themselves from pervasive government surveillance. It has provided organizations in numerous countries where local funding is impossible and major foundations fail to reach with the necessary support to keep Internet users in their countries safe from harm and able to access important information.
I’ll readily admit that I was, and remain, skeptical of the Internet freedom agenda. The State Department agenda seemed heavily focused on countries where the US sought regime change—like Iran, Syria, and China. And I wasn’t the only one: Prominent Tunisian activist Sami Ben Gharbia criticized the agenda for its propensity to disincline the US from engaging in action that would “endanger the ‘stability’ of the dictatorial Arab order,” while writer Evgeny Morozov challenged the very idea that the Internet could bring about freedom or change.
In those heady, early days it was not uncommon for untested and unvetted tools—at least one of which turned out to be utter snake oil—to receive funding, invitations to State Department events, or even awards. In my circles, rumors of Beltway Bandits competing for lucrative Internet freedom contracts abounded.
But OTF, launched in 2012, sought to change all that by putting into place measures that ensured that any technology it funded was open source. Recognizing the mistrust that existed amongst much of the global Internet freedom community, OTF put together an expert advisory council (of which I was a founding member) to review applications for funding, and began to create a sense of community amongst OTF-funded projects through the creation of an annual summit that has, over time, grown to be a diverse, inclusive, and community-led event.
This is what sets OTF apart and, regrettably, what is most at stake if Michael Pack gets his way. Neither Pack—nor James Miles, his recent appointee to the position of the position of OTF CEO—is an expert on Internet freedom, but some powerful players have his ear, among them the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice and the lobbyist Michael Horowitz, another Steve Bannon ally. Both have long worked to get the majority of funding for a particular set of tools backed by the anti-gay religious group Falun Gong that includes China-focused VPNs Ultrasurf and Freegate.
The Lantos Foundation would have you believe that it is that affiliation that has prevented their favored tools—which include Ultrasurf and Freegate—from receiving funding from OTF, claiming prejudice against this oppressed religious group. But the fact of the matter is that the people behind the tools have for many years refused to open up their code, and thereby verify the accuracy of their security claims. The battle is, therefore, between closed and open source technology.
Open source technology is critical in the internet freedom space, because it allows —anyone to inspect the code and understand how a given program works, or whether its code contains any bugs or backdoors. If bugs are found, they can be reported to the developers, helping them to improve upon the technology.
OTF requires that the tools it funds make their code open and publicly available, allowing it to be used by other developers, who can learn from it or reuse parts of it to build new programs or create applications that run on top of existing ones. Closed source technology, on the other hand, withdraws that knowledge from the public—it is inherently proprietary, unavailable for audit by anyone but hired experts under a non-disclosure agreement.
For OTF’s global community, this is a matter of trust and safety. I have attended most of OTF’s annual summits and spoken to a number of the developers, researchers, and activists from all over the world. Many of them speak of persecution by the state, of targeted surveillance, and pervasive censorship. They trust open source technology because they understand that using it does not present yet another vulnerability in their lives, the way that an unvetted closed source tool could.
Open source can also be a matter of thrift: OTF’s estimated annual budget is $15 million—hardly a dent in what myriad state actors spend each year to go after activists and dissidents. By using open source code, technologists can stretch that budget even farther, creating news tools that run alongside existing ones, or “forking” existing code for new purposes. It also ensures sustainability: If a project’s founders move on, they leave their code behind, allowing another group to pick up the slack and continue the work.
OTF’s opponents have failed time and time again to engage with any of these arguments, instead hammering on how their favored tools will ensure that more people can leap over China’s Great Firewall. That is certainly a noble goal, but what concerns me is that it seems to be their only goal.
While China’s censorship model is one of the most sophisticated, there is no publicly available instruction or guidance from the developers of tools such as Ultrasurf or Freegate on how users can continue to use this tool despite some enforcement of VPN restrictions in China, as well as VPNs repeatedly being removed from China’s Apple store. Because these tools are closed source, no one can say whether they’re even safe for Chinese users. Yet, these problems are regularly discussed and new approaches piloted among other open source anti-censorship projects, so that they can learn from each other’s hard work.
As the space for online free speech continues to shrink, the developers of these tools have apparently done little to nothing to make their technology available to, say, activists in Uganda impacted by the country’s new social media tax. Using these tools, protesters in Hong Kong will be unable to access censored content or safely hide their online identity amid growing surveillance capabilities used to find protesters. There’s also no evidence that Lebanese human rights defenders could make use of these tools to organize safely.
The digital threats that face anyone whose right to existence is under attack are not isolated to one country. Civil society worldwide must work together to overcome well-coordinated, well-resourced digital adversaries, and must trust in the technology that holds their sensitive conversations and identities. This trust can only be earned through open source code.
It is for these reasons that nearly five hundred organizations—and more than a thousand individuals, many of whom are experts in the field—have signed a letter calling on Congress to require Internet freedom funds to be awarded through an open, fair, competitive, and evidence-based decision process; to remain fully open-source in perpetuity; to ensure that all technologies supported by government funds receive regular security audits; and to pass the Open Technology Fund Authorization Act.
It is difficult to say what exactly will be lost if Michael Pack is allowed to continue his tyrannical reign, but one thing is for certain: The Internet freedom agenda is going to look a lot more like the Trump agenda—dangerous and ineffective.