As the fight to #SaveInternetFreedom charges ahead, over 500 organizations and thousands of individuals have now signed the letter urging Congress to take action to protect the Open Technology Fund (OTF) from the reckless moves made by new US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO, Michael Pack. Read on to learn more about the recent actions taken by OTF and members of the SIFT community to fight back against this hostile takeover, protect internet freedom, and stand up for the digital rights of all.
Lawsuit Challenging Pack’s Purge Achieves Essential Victory and Continues on Appeal
On June 23, 2020, OTF and members of the organization’s Board filed a lawsuit in DC district court challenging Pack’s attempt to unilaterally dismiss OTF officers and directors. In rejecting Pack’s moves, the complaint makes plain that the newly appointed CEO acted without legal authority and breached a statutory firewall in his effort to oust the qualified and expert members of an independent, private non-profit organization. In a critical win, the Department of Justice immediately moved to eliminate Pack’s freeze on OTF funds - clearing the way for OTF to continue to service its ongoing contracts during this uncertain time.
The lawsuit also increased national attention on the critical issue of OTF’s independence and brought new defenders to the organization’s side in the fight to save internet freedom. On July 1, 2020, a bipartisan coalition of seven Senators - including prominent Republicans Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham - 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 to ensure that United States international broadcasting is not politicized and the agency is able to fully and effectively carry out its core mission."
The following day, the judge in the DC lawsuit issued an initial ruling - strongly agreeing with OTF’s argument that the independent organization is not subject to Pack’s authority under the law in the same way as other USAGM entities, but ultimately deciding to deny OTF’s request for immediate injunctive relief. In so ruling, the judge noted that “[w]idespread misgivings about Pack’s actions raise troubling concerns.” Although the motion for emergency relief was not granted, the question of who controls OTF remains up for debate and ripe for adjudication. OTF and Members of its Board continue to litigate this highly winnable issue on appeal at the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.
Pack Attempts to Install Unqualified Individual as New Acting CEO of OTF
As bipartisan momentum continued to build against Pack’s abuse of power, on July 7, 2020, he doubled down and attempted to name James M. Miles acting CEO of OTF. Miles, the former Secretary of State for South Carolina, lacks any relevant qualifications to lead a cutting-edge technology research and development organization. Indeed, Miles has no background working on issues of global internet freedom, technology, or human rights. The only experience noted in USAGM’s official press release pertains to his legal background in labor relations law - an area with no bearing whatsoever on OTF’s mission. Further complicating matters, reporting indicates serious financial questions surround the work Miles performed during his time as Chief of Staff to the Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina.
Such a demonstrably unqualified appointment stands in stark contrast to the expertise of prior OTF leadership - CEO, Libby Liu, and President, Laura Cunningham. Liu is a leading expert on internet freedom issues globally, and specifically in China. Prior to becoming OTF’s first-ever CEO, Liu was President of Radio Free Asia for 14 years, during which time she created OTF as a program to combat censorship and surveillance in China. For her efforts at OTF, Liu was awarded the Luxembourg Peace Prize for Outstanding Peace Technology in 2020 - just weeks before her unceremonious removal by Pack. Similarly, Cunningham has over a decade of experience leading global internet freedom initiatives across a variety of donor, non-profit, and government organizations, including most recently as Senior Advisor for Internet Freedom at the U.S. State Department.
Given Liu and Cunningham’s extensive experience and dedication to OTF’s mission, it comes as no surprise that members of Congress responded negatively to Pack’s moves by stating:
“We are deeply concerned about the firings of qualified leadership; the reports that USAGM has frozen funds and grants; and the public reports that USAGM under Mr. Pack’s leadership is considering altering preexisting budget commitments to internet freedom initiatives in order to fund products that have been subject to well-documented concerns that they do not meet technological specifications, security standards, and industry best-practices.”
In light of the above, OTF and members of the SIFT community have staunchly opposed Pack’s attempt to appoint Miles as acting CEO of the organization. Pursuant to the ongoing litigation, OTF has rejected Miles’ leadership claims.