The Open Technology Fund
(OTF) is a critical funding partner in the global fight for internet freedom. More than two billion people around the world currently rely on technologies supported by the non-profit’s work to communicate securely, circumvent censorship, and combat authoritarianism. In an increasingly repressive online environment, OTF serves as an essential beacon of hope furthering the interests of human rights, internet freedom, and democratic values. Yet shockingly, the bipartisan U.S.-based organization was attacked by its own government in the summer of 2020. This is the remarkable story of the internet freedom community’s response to that threat.
Setting the Stage
OTF is primarily funded by the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM). Through regular open calls and rigorous transparency, the impact OTF has been able to achieve with its Congressionally allocated internet freedom funds is nothing short of astonishing. Yet when a long-pending Trump Administration nominee for USAGM CEO was confirmed in early June 2020, the agency inexplicably turned on OTF – attempting to fire its Board of Directors and key officers.
But the organization – thanks to the unwavering support of the internet freedom community – refused to be dismantled or co-opted for partisan purposes. And seven months after his initial attack on OTF (and in the wake of mounting legal losses and overwhelming negative publicity), the new CEO of USAGM tendered his resignation. With its bipartisan Board restored, and under the expert leadership of President Laura Cunningham, OTF today continues on in its support of open, secure, and accessible technologies for the promotion of global human rights and free societies.
Read on to learn more about the heroic #SaveOTF campaign that launched the #SaveInternetFreedom movement.
While Congress was in the process of introducing the Open Technology Fund Authorization Act to further enhance OTF’s independence and long-term sustainability, the Trump Administration nominated Michael Pack to become CEO of USAGM. Pack, a conservative filmmaker and known ally of Steve Bannon, was eventually confirmed on June 4, 2020 (after his controversial nomination had sat pending for almost two years). His appointment led to immediate resignations within the agency.
The new leader of USAGM quickly set about dismantling the leadership of the agency’s various organizations. On June 17, in what was dubbed the “Wednesday night massacre,” Pack dismissed the heads of Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and OTF (CEO Libby Liu). He then attempted to unilaterally disband OTF’s entire bipartisan Board of Directors – seeking to replace trusted and experienced professionals with the likes of Bethany Kozma, an anti-trans and anti-abortion activist, and someone who has no expertise or ties with the internet freedom community. Just a day later, Pack also attempted to fire OTF President and acting CEO Laura Cunningham.
Hundreds of community-based organizations immediately spoke out in protest. Pack’s reckless moves were also swiftly condemned on both sides of the political aisle. In a joint press release, Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX), the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) reiterated that they were “troubled” by the unconsulted termination of OTF’s President and Board of Directors. In turn, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for the acting Inspector General of the State Department to investigate whether the firings violated applicable rules of independence.
On June 23, 2020, OTF and members of the organization’s Board of Directors filed a complaint in the District Court of the District of Columbia seeking injunctive relief to nullify Pack’s reckless attempts to fire OTF officers and directors. The legal challenge, which asserted Pack’s actions broke the law by breaching the statutory “firewall” designed to keep OTF and its sister organizations independent from the government, became immediate national news (and was ultimately appealed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals). The following day, a coalition of U.S. Senators and Representatives demanded answers from Pack regarding claims that he was "seeking to change the fundamental mission of OTF and to redirect millions of dollars in OTF funding to technologies that were previously denied funding."
On July 1, 2020, a bipartisan coalition of seven Senators – including prominent Republicans Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, and Susan Collins – sent a "scathing" letter to Pack expressing their “deep concern” about his unilateral actions and vowing to conduct “a thorough review of USAGM’s funding." Two days later, a group of key Representatives warned: "If the firewall that protects USAGM’s editorial independence is eroded, it will make USAGM ineffective. Rather than providing a counter-point to autocratic regimes, it would call into question the U.S.’s commitment to democratic values, and risk reinforcing misperceptions that USAGM media outlets are simply state propaganda, no different from Russia Today or others around the world."
On July 21, 2020, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals granted OTF's motion for injunction pending appeal in its lawsuit challenging Pack’s attempted purge of the non-profit’s Board of Directors and key officers. The ruling, a significant win for OTF, temporarily enjoined Pack from taking any other action to control OTF and confirmed the status of the organization's Board of Directors and acting CEO Laura Cunningham pending resolution of the appeal. Yet despite the unanimous Court order, Pack and USAGM continued to withhold critical Congressionally allocated internet freedom funds from OTF. As a result, on July 31, OTF was forced to issue stop-work orders to 49 of its 60 internet freedom projects, impacting 80% of the organization's essential work helping human rights advocates, journalists, and members of the most vulnerable communities.
In response, OTF filed suit at the Court of Federal Claims on August 20 alleging multiple breaches of contract by USAGM and seeking roughly $20 million in unjustifiably withheld internet freedom funding. The following month, Pack was subpoenaed to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and provide testimony explaining his actions. Instead, USAGM's rogue CEO chose to defy the Committee's subpoena, angering Republicans and Democrats alike.
On October 14, in another major legal win for OTF, the Superior Court of the District of Columbia granted summary judgment in a lawsuit brought by the DC Attorney General challenging Pack’s attempted purge. At issue in the case was whether Pack, as CEO of USAGM, had the authority to remove OTF’s bipartisan, expert Board of Directors and install a replacement Board of his own. In granting DC Attorney General Karl A. Racine’s motion, the Court decisively held that Pack had no such right. The remaining cases were ultimately resolved in a manner favorable to OTF.
Over the course of the legal proceedings, bipartisan support continued to grow for OTF. Concerns that Pack would likely be responsive to a narrow lobbying effort seeking to redirect OTF resources to closed-source, private tech companies motivated politicians on both sides of the aisle to speak up in defense of open source solutions and OTF’s long-standing competitive and transparent award process. Community members across the globe made sure their voices were heard as well. Over 500 organizations and thousands of individuals united under the #SaveInternetFreedom banner and signed a letter demanding Congress intervene to protect OTF. And when OTF’s case went before the D.C. Circuit of Appeals, a coalition of internet freedom advocates presented their arguments in defense of OTF to the Court as amici curiae. Behind the scenes, funders and activists also convened in an effort to mitigate the effects of Pack’s attack on the organization’s projects and fellows. Throughout it all, a spotlight shone brightly on the essential – but at times under-the-radar – work performed by the small D.C.-based non-profit.
This incredible groundswell of support ultimately proved decisive. By the time Joe Biden assumed the presidency on January 20, 2021, it was clear that Pack would not be able to continue on as CEO of USAGM – despite being less than one year into a three-year term. Just hours after President Biden took the oath of office, Pack tendered his letter of resignation. With its bipartisan Board restored, and under the expert leadership of President Laura Cunningham, OTF today continues on in its vital role as a key funding partner in the global fight for internet freedom.
The Open Technology Fund (OTF) is an independent non-profit organization committed to advancing global internet freedom by supporting projects focused on counteracting repressive online censorship and surveillance. Through the research, development, implementation, and sustainability of technologies that facilitate the free flow of information and increase at-risk user security, the OTF community strives to shape the internet into a secure platform capable of protecting free expression, facilitating positive social progress, and reinforcing core democratic values.
Everyday, journalists, political dissidents, human rights defenders, and members of the most vulnerable communities across the globe trust their lives to OTF-supported technology and organizing, including:
- Signal: Widely accepted as the most secure messaging app available, Signal also provides the security technology behind WhatsApp. The ubiquity of encrypted messaging would not be possible without Signal and their primary funding from OTF.
- Tor Project: Secure, anonymous web browsing tech that also provides the underlying technical infrastructure for a host of other critical organizations.
- Localization Lab: A grassroots global effort to ensure that internet freedom tools are translated and localized into hundreds of different languages - finally giving non-English speakers true access to essential technologies.
- Center for Digital Resilience: An incident response platform for civil society organizations to report, coordinate, and respond to digital security attacks and misinformation.
- The Internet Freedom Festival: OTF is the primary funder for this annual conference - the global home of internet freedom activists.
OTF has always utilized an open, fair, competitive, and evidence-based award process to conduct a rigorous review of internet freedom projects and technologies. This includes an independent Advisory Council with participants from academia, industry, and civil society providing expertise and feedback on OTF's funding decisions. OTF has also funded over 100 independent third-party security audits of internet freedom technologies to ensure only those with the highest security standards are supported with U.S. government funds.
Read more about the organization's remarkable accomplishments, below.
- Since OTF's inception in 2012, the non-profit has funded over 400 innovative projects to combat censorship and repressive surveillance, including over 50 fellowships to support cutting-edge research and digital security interventions, 6 labs to improve the security, usability, resiliency and interoperability of key internet freedom technologies, and over 100 rapid response interventions to address digital emergencies.
- Over the past 7 years, OTF has reviewed and responded to over 4,000 requests for internet freedom support, totaling nearly $450 million.
- Over 75% of OTF’s budget is used to support the development and implementation of circumvention and secure communication technologies.
- Today, over 2 billion people use OTF-supported technology, and more than two-thirds of all mobile users globally have technology incubated by OTF on their device.
- OTF-funded circumvention technologies like Lantern, Psiphon, and Wireguard are used by tens of millions of people living in internet-restricted countries to access the uncensored internet, including millions of daily users in China.
- OTF is currently investing in the development of next-generation, AI-powered circumvention solutions that can identify and exploit gaps in censorship firewalls in real-time.
- OTF supports the full spectrum of secure communications technologies for journalists and human rights defenders, including secure messaging, secure file storage, secure email, secure file-sharing, and secure operating systems.
- OTF incubated and assisted in the development of the back-end security technology utilized by WhatsApp, the Signal Protocol.
- OTF’s Red Team Lab has identified and patched nearly 2,000 privacy and security vulnerabilities to ensure internet freedom tools can be used safely in dangerous environments.
- OTF’s Localization Lab has translated internet freedom tools into over 200 languages including Mandarin, Russian, Farsi, Spanish, Arabic, Tibetan, French, and Vietnamese.
- OTF-supported network measurement tools monitor and detect internet censorship in real-time in over 210 countries.
- OTF has provided rapid response assistance to journalists in more than 40 countries, including Azerbaijan, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Russia, Syria, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.
- After the contested 2018 presidential election in Venezuela, OTF provided digital security training to journalists on the ground, deployed circumvention and secure communication tools for tens of thousands of citizens, and assisted a network of journalists that was targeted by government-sponsored hacking attempts.
- OTF is developing and deploying new technical solutions in Iran to combat future internet shutdowns, including highly innovative peer-to-peer solutions.