Working to ensure a free, open, and secure Internet requires efforts from a global community. Forming and maintaining a global community is hard work and needs resources and support. The Open Technology Fund (OTF) has been a vital pillar in supporting this community
Gaining the trust of marginalized and at-risk groups is difficult and can be especially so for US government funded bodies, as many communities (for good reasons) view the US government with suspicion.
While being a US-funding body, OTF has built trust and made vital contributions to communities through an open source ethos, a transparent approach to funding, and a commitment to independence, as far as possible, from U.S. administrations under which ultimately they are governed.
Recent developments in the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees the OTF and US government-funded broadcasting organisations, call into question the ability of OTF to continue its work, maintain its perceived independence, and preserve trust among marginalized and at-risk communities
The recently appointed CEO of USAGM, Micheal Pack, has taken a number of dramatic actions across the organisation, including: ousting Libby Liu, CEO of OTF, along with the heads of Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
He has also replaced the USAGM board of directors with individuals who have concerning histories, such as Bethany Kozma who has campaigned against transgender access in public school washrooms. Following these moves, the President of OTF, Laura Cunningham, was also fired. These sweeping changes come amidst groups lobbying the USAGM to redirect some of OTF’s resources to a few closed-source circumvention tools.
Together these developments raise serious concerns that the USAGM will become a partisan organisation in which the OTF model of transparent funding to open source projects will be sacrificed. The trust that has taken OTF years to build could be lost overnight.
Along with supporting many of the open source Internet circumvention tools and privacy enhancing apps that millions of users depend on, OTF has also played a significant role in supporting the study of information controls.
Tools, training, and other applied approaches are vital to maintaining a free and open Internet. Independent, impartial research on information controls is an essential foundation as well. Building a field of study around information controls is one of the Citizen Lab’s main strategic goals. OTF has been a key partner in helping us and a wide community of scholars achieve that goal.
In 2014, at an Internet Freedom conference, we had a meeting with Dan Meredith, then the Director of OTF. Dan asked us what OTF could do to help our work. We explained to Dan that as a general policy Citizen Lab does not take direct government funding, such as that provided through Internet Freedom programs offered by the US Department of State. This policy is meant to maximize the real and perceived independence of our research, as governments are often the focus of our investigations. However, we understand other groups and organizations make a different choice, and we respect those decisions.
While we maintain our policy, we also felt OTF was trying to do something different in the US government funding space and that they were making positive efforts to help the budding community of scholars studying information controls. So we told Dan that rather than fund our group, OTF could establish a fellowship program that directly funds students to work with university-based research organisations (ours and others) to do cutting edge research on how censorship and surveillance affects marginalised groups around the world. Soon after that meeting, the OTF Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) was created. The ICFP has subsequently supported dozens of students and practitioners and helped build a community of information control researchers.
The OTF has also been a key supporter of the Citizen Lab Summer Institute (CLSI) which acts as a hands-on workshop for the information controls research community. Through the ICFP and CLSI, ground breaking research with implications for policy and at-risk communities have flourished, including uncovering insecure child monitoring applications in Korea, exposing the Great Cannon—an attack tool in China used for large scale distributed-denial of service attacks against code sharing platforms and human rights websites—and many other milestones. In the long term, the fellows who go through the ICFP will become the professors, mentors, and supporters of the next generation of students and researchers working to understand information controls and safeguard the free and open Internet. This work was made possible by the contributions of OTF and could only happen through its open approach to funding and management.
The encroachments to OTF highlight why independent and transparent funding sources for research and development on Internet freedom are so important. Providing this type of support within a large government organisation can be difficult. OTF was an example of how to do that right. Losing that example will be a loss not only to the practitioners and researchers that have grown through the support of OTF but the wider community of marginalized people they support.
– Ron Deibert (Director) and Masashi Crete-Nishihata (Associate Director)