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WASHINGTON -- The Open Technology Fund (OTF), a key leader in the global fight for internet freedom, has been forced to issue stop-work orders to the vast majority of its projects due to new U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) CEO Michael Pack’s arbitrary decision to withhold $20 million in Congressionally allocated internet freedom funds from the DC-based non-profit. The move directly contradicts the agency’s June 29, 2020, statement to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that “USAGM is not ‘withhold[ing]’ anything; it is simply disbursing fourth-quarter funds on a monthly basis.” USAGM has not released funding to OTF since Pack was confirmed as CEO in early June.
Said Cunningham in a letter to Pack last week, “This arbitrary and unnecessary delay in funding has now compromised the work of our projects and jeopardized the lives of millions of users who rely on our technologies worldwide. OTF’s mission to advance internet freedom globally supports USAGM’s own mission, advances universal human rights, furthers U.S. foreign policy and national security priorities, and fulfills Congressional objectives. Being prevented from fulfilling this essential mission is counterproductive to our shared goals and needlessly destructive. I implore you to release funding for OTF as soon as possible so that we can resume the truly critical work of countering repressive censorship and surveillance abroad.”
A remarkable bipartisan success story, tools supported by OTF are now used by over two billion people around the world to communicate securely, circumvent censorship, and combat authoritarianism. Yet as a result of USAGM’s refusal to comply with Congressional funding allocations, the organization is set to exhaust all available resources by mid-September. Given the lack of funds on hand, OTF was forced to issue stop-work orders at the end of last week to 49 of its active internet freedom projects, bringing over 80 percent of the organization’s operations to a standstill. For the first time in OTF’s history, it has also stopped accepting applications for its next round of funding and is no longer issuing new contracts.
“The impact is devastating, not just on our work, but on people we work for,” said Dragana Kaurin, Executive Director of Localization Lab, an OTF-supported organization that works to increase equal access to the internet and information by translating open source tools into more than 200 languages. The organization’s efforts help support members of the most vulnerable communities around the world, who Kaurin says are now left wondering, “What are we going to use? Who has our data?”
On Monday, OTF’s Board of Directors sent an open letter to Pack demanding USAGM transfer to OTF “no less than $11 million in FY2020 congressionally allocated funds by August 7, 2020.” The letter, which copied Congressional offices with oversight over internet freedom funding, detailed USAGM’s pattern of withholding and laid bare the geopolitical and personal impacts of the stop-work orders: “This arbitrary withholding of funds will strengthen authoritarian efforts to exert control in the information space, at an especially critical time. Without support from OTF for its internet freedom tools, protesters and activists around the world — including in Hong Kong, Iran, and Venezuela — will be left more exposed to increasingly sophisticated censorship and surveillance technology. This arbitrary withholding of funding has undermined OTF’s mission, compromised the work of its projects, and needlessly put at risk millions of users who rely on OTF-supported technologies to evade political repression worldwide.”
In response to news of the stop-work orders, Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX), Republican Leader on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, immediately called on USAGM to disburse the funds: “It is essential that USAGM leadership unlock funds meant for the Open Technology Fund so that oppressed people in China, Iran & other authoritarian states have internet access & can communicate safely w/ one another. OTF programs are a key link to the free world.” McCaul’s strong statement of support for OTF echoes many others made by representatives on both sides of the aisle since Pack’s attempted purge first began in June.
As OTF awaits decisive action on the disbursement issue, the internet freedom community has rallied around the keystone funder and begun soliciting donations to provide bridge funds to the projects that received stop-work orders. The #SaveInternetFreedom campaign, a coalition of volunteers which formed in response to Pack’s hostile actions, is now accepting donations through an Open Collective relief fund to help ensure people around the world are still able to speak, think, and worship freely online. The campaign has also circulated a petition urging Congress to act to save OTF, which has garnered thousands of individual and over 500 organizational signatures, including tech giants Github, Mozilla, and Wikimedia, as well as advocacy organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Civil Rights Defenders, and Freedom House.