Joint letter: OTF Shake-up Highlights Need for Diverse Funding for Internet Freedom Projects

Last updated: 2020-11-16T14:00:00Z
After a leadership shake-up at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) earlier this year, including $20 million in frozen funds earmarked for the Open Technology Fund (OTF), more than 50 organisations have signed a letter in support of funding sustainability of OTF and the Internet Freedom community at large, which includes activists, journalists, technologists, and organizations working to protect privacy, free speech, and free access to the internet around the world.

The statement's authors and signatories include representatives from the private sector as well as civil society. Shames Abdelwahab from Canada-based VPN provider TunnelBear says, "the internet freedom community is responsible for many of the online technologies that people trust to keep them safe. Building a sustainable funding model for the brave folks who allow us to carry on with daily peace-of-mind is absolutely crucial." The letter highlights the need for diversity of funding because, "[Internet freedom] is a global initiative with a single point of failure...widespread interest should be reflected in the community’s available funding opportunities." The Chief Technologist for the Center for Democracy & Technology Mallory Knodel says, "It is now fully recognised in mainstream debates that the open, accessible and effective technology-based solutions to digital autocracy around the world wouldn't exist without the Open Technology Fund. These tools must remain effective and activists, journalists and civic space must be protected from the techniques being evolved by illiberal adversaries. Democratic governments can join this effort by stepping up their funding to OTF and the internet freedom community."

The full text of the letter is provided below.

Joint letter: OTF shake-up highlights need for diverse funding for internet freedom projects

We are calling on governments, companies, and allies in all sectors to diversify funding to internet freedom projects and technologies, by investing in the brave organizations that allow billions of people to safely browse the internet, free from censorship and surveillance. 

The past two months have shaken the foundations of one of the internet freedom community’s biggest proponents, the Open Technology Fund (OTF), a grantee of USAGM. All this comes on the heels of Trump’s appointment of Michael Pack as CEO of USAGM. OTF’s work, a pillar of support for the internet freedom community, has been hindered due to USAGM’s attempt to fire OTF’s leadership and Board and to withhold nearly $20 million, leaving those reliant on its funding to face an uncertain future. 

OTF has cemented its reputation as an ally in the community by helping dissidents in authoritarian regimes counter repressive surveillance and censorship. It has gained the community’s trust through a commitment to independence from the US government, investment in open source projects, and its transparent funding model. 

Technologies funded by OTF are used by over 2 billion people across the globe to circumvent censorship and unwarranted surveillance, all with a comparatively modest budget. The internet freedom community has filled the news cycle with calls to #SaveInternetFreedom as they watched while a significant source of their funding and support quickly deteriorated. Last month, OTF announced it was forced to halt 49 of 60 internet freedom projects, which puts the online and physical safety of those who rely on its funding at risk. 

These developments illustrate the dangers of global initiatives with a single point of failure. The internet freedom community is made up of technologists, journalists, digital security trainers, and policy officers that operate globally; yet many are reliant on OTF’s funding, which receives its financial support from a single government. 

But why should this be the case when so many governments are committed to supporting internet freedom? The Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) consists of 32 member governments that have all demonstrated a commitment to protecting online freedoms through their own domestic record and internet freedom-friendly foreign policies. This widespread interest should be reflected in the community’s available funding opportunities. There is still much work to be done in the realm of secure messaging apps, security training for journalists, privacy policy, and this work requires a sustainable funding model. 

The reality is, the potential loss of OTF leaves a gap that allies have a responsibility to fill. As it stands, USAGM has withheld roughly $20 million of OTF’s FY 2020 and FY 2019 budgets. Many OTF grantees have begun speaking up about USAGM’s devastating actions, such as  Horizontal’s Raphael Mimoun, who said “without OTF funding, we are simply losing the ability to keep our tools secure, upgrade security infrastructure, and make sure our users are protected against repression.” 

We see this as an opportunity for the international community to respond. OTF has demonstrated in the past eight years how to responsibly fund internet freedom projects, and the FOC shows that there are a variety of institutions willing to speak up for online freedoms. Given USAGM’s dramatic actions, the gap left by Michael Pack’s decision warrants an equally dramatic response by online freedom supporters.

Investing in internet freedom means investing in a strong community with more than a decade of wins and widely used technologies, such as Signal, Tor, WireGuard, and more. Diversifying the funding landscape would allow the community to keep helping those relying on internet freedom projects, and ultimately ensure their safety and security, both online and offline.

We call on government and private sector allies to fill the $20 million gap left by USAGM. The internet freedom community needs more reliable access to a diverse funding model, and must never again be put in such a precarious position. Governments and companies must demonstrate the importance of internet freedom by investing in the brave organizations that allow billions of people to safely access, browse, and communicate on the internet and live their day-to-day lives.