The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump administration is crippling international Internet freedom effort by withholding funds, officials say

The Voice of America building in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

The Trump administration is withholding $20 million in funding approved by Congress for a U.S. Internet freedom organization, forcing the cutoff Friday of tools used by tens of millions of people worldwide to access the Internet and uncensored news through the Voice of America, officials said.

The head of the Washington-based Open Technology Fund said Thursday that it is being forced to halt 49 of the fund’s 60 Internet freedom projects. The move, according to the head of the fund, affects about 80 percent of the group’s work helping human rights and pro-democracy advocates, journalists and others in 200 countries.

“Most troubling is that these actions will directly strengthen the hands of Internet freedom adversaries, like the Chinese and Iranian governments, who are actively working to undermine freedom and democracy around the world,” the fund’s acting chief executive, Laura Cunningham, wrote in an email to the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

The funding fight is the latest fallout in a power struggle between the Open Technology Fund and the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees U.S. government-funded news outlets.

After his confirmation in June, the agency’s new director, Michael Pack, moved to fire the fund’s board and officers, before being blocked by a federal appeals court from doing so in early July.

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In an email Thursday to Pack, Cunningham said the ongoing “arbitrary and unnecessary” withholding of grants earmarked by Congress has compromised the fund’s work countering digital surveillance, supporting technologies used by 2 billion people a day. She also said it “jeopardized the lives of millions of users who rely on our technologies worldwide,” including the agency’s own journalists and its audience overseas.

The cutoff “not only compromises OTF’s mission but sabotages USAGM’s as well,” Cunningham said, including the advancement of human rights, U.S. foreign policy and national security priorities.

The email, a copy of which was provided to The Washington Post, states that 85 percent of the U.S. Agency for Global Media’s audience in Iran and 40 percent of its audience in China rely on fund-supported technologies to access content produced by VOA, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and Middle East Broadcast Networks.

The U.S. Agency for Global Media, in a statement, called OTF’s accusations meritless and not based on fact. It said the fund is “very focused on being handed millions of taxpayer dollars without any oversight, whatsoever. USAGM is committed to protecting U.S. national security, sharing America’s story with the world, and supporting legitimate Internet freedom projects.”

Pack’s moves are controversial among some executive branch security and diplomatic officials battling censorship and surveillance by U.S. adversaries in Iran, China and Venezuela.

Spokesmen for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development declined to comment on whether they supported the funding freeze or whether it was consistent with the administration’s policies countering repressive regimes, referring questions to the agency.

Christine Bednarz, spokeswoman for the National Endowment for Democracy, a congressionally funded organization founded in 1983 to support the spread of human rights, said NED does not take positions on U.S. policy but “anti-censorship and circumvention technologies — such as those provided by the fund — are critical to the ability of people to access information and work in closed societies, like Iran, China, and Venezuela.”

The Open Technology Fund is one of the largest sources of funding for developing, disseminating and maintaining free, open-source technology tools such as Signal and Tor, which permit users to encrypt communications and anonymously access the Internet despite government controls.

Read the text of the Open Technology Fund email here

It also works to protect journalists, sources, activists and consumers from digital attack, and to aid researchers and technology developers. Defenders say halting support of tools that secure operating systems, communications and data storage will cut off a critical information lifeline for people documenting and sharing evidence in repressive societies with accelerating surveillance, putting those who rely on it directly in harm’s way.

“The impact is devastating, not just on our work but on people we work for,” said Dragana Kaurin, whose Localization Lab translates security and privacy tools into 200 local languages, including for vulnerable groups in Bolivia, Colombia, Myanmar, Turkey, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.

“People don’t trust private foreign security tools that aren’t in their own language . . . and it takes time to build that trust,” said Kaurin, who has helped independent journalists in Vietnam apply hardware encryption tools such as Veracrypt to adapt to government raids.

Users “are asking, what’s going to happen now? What are we going to use? Who has our data? . . . Are tools like Signal and Tor going to be safe to use if they lose the funding to update their code regularly?” she said. ‘Trust is the most expensive thing in the world, and you can lose it so easily.”

The Open Technology Fund projects include a Red Team Lab, which has audited and patched more than 2,100 privacy and security vulnerabilities in tools such as SecureDrop, used by journalists to accept story tips from anonymous sources.

“It’s a great loss to secure and private communications worldwide, and especially to those who are targeted by domineering nation states,” said Red Team Lab member Erik Cabetas, head of Brooklyn-based Include Security.

Another funded group, eQualitie of Montreal, helps protect more than 500 vulnerable civil society organizations from cyberattacks with its project, and is applying machine learning technology to respond to malicious Web traffic and developing a peer-to-peer messaging app that can work during Internet shutdowns, founder Dmitri Vitalev said.

The fund also supports the monitoring and detection of increasingly sophisticated Internet censorship in about 210 countries through the Open Observatory of Network Interference, which collaborates with entities such as Psiphon, a censorship circumvention tool highly popular in Iran.

The network has identified politically motivated attacks, including disruptions in 2019 of social media sites aimed at supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, anti-government demonstrators in Ethiopia, and fuel protesters in Zimbabwe, said the group’s research and partnerships director Maria Xynou. It also has spotted targeting of lesbian and gay people and ethnic minorities in Iran, Ethiopia and Indonesia, she said.

OTF is one of the few outlets focused on marginalized populations, the people who are most affected by pervasive censorship and surveillance, those who understand it and those who are best positioned to fight it, Xynou said.

“Those people have trusted OTF, and if there are drastic changes to its leadership and its funding, that means people who are best positioned to defend Internet freedom will no longer be supported,” Xynou said. “This will have a long-term impact on the broader Internet freedom community beyond our work.”

The Internet freedom arena “is a cat-and-mouse space, where governments find new ways of spying and oppressing human rights, and defenders constantly need to develop new ways to protect them,” said Raphael Mimoun, founder of Horizontal. The group develops an OTF-funded tool called Tella that securely hides and encrypts sensitive material on mobile devices and shares it with human rights organizations.

“Without OTF funding, we are simply losing the ability to keep our tools secure, upgrade security infrastructure, and to make sure our users are protected against repression,” Mimoun said.

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The U.S. Agency for Global Media has paid $9.3 million of the fund’s $20 million 2020 allocation to date, the agency said. But it also holds an additional $9­ million of prior year allocations that it has promised to release as part of a transfer of contracts from Radio Free Asia, where the fund began as a pilot project in 2012, Cunningham said.

Pack’s aides have complained of “bias and partisanship” and unspecified but “known mismanagement and scandals” at media components. The agency’s statement called the fund’s desire to divert attention from these failures “transparent.” Cunningham said the fund has not received any explanation or justification for the funding delay, nor has the agency made it aware of any “compliance or security failings.”

“OTF has always and continues to welcome and comply with USAGM oversight as well as congressional, OIG, and GAO oversight,” she said, adding, “I’m disheartened by this mischaracterization of issues that OTF takes so seriously.”

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