Save Internet Freedom: Support the Open Technology Fund
Last Wednesday was dubbed as a “Wednesday night massacre”, following the firing of the directors of four organizations overseen by the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM): Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Middle East Broadcasting, and the Open Technology Fund (OTF).
Out of these four organizations, we would like to draw your attention to the OTF, not only because they have been a long-term funder of our project but, more importantly, because they have been essential in creating the internet freedom community as we know it.
The actions of last Wednesday follow lobbying attempts to prevent the Open Technology Fund Authorization Act (H.R.6621) from passing, which would establish the OTF as an independent grantee of the USAGM. Lobbyists are suggesting that the USAGM should allocate all of the funds that would have otherwise gone to the OTF to some commercial VPN technologies instead.
This is extremely concerning, given that the OTF is one of the main funders of free censorship circumvention and privacy-enhancing technologies that human rights defenders and vulnerable communities around the world rely on.
To voice your concern, join us and sign this letter to Congress.
Here’s why we think OTF is in a unique position to support the internet freedom community.
We trust the OTF because they are one of us.
We trust the OTF because they are internet freedom defenders.
We trust the OTF because, like us, they have worked on internet freedom projects – as researchers, technologists, journalists, human rights defenders, policy analysts, and community leaders – and they actually understand the field.
We trust the OTF because of its people.
We trust the OTF because its team consists of people like Fiona, a prominent community organizer who managed mentorship at the world’s largest hacker conference, people like Adam, who has tirelessly fought for the right to an open internet, people like Lindsay, who has worked with activists on documenting internet censorship and surveillance around the world, and people like Libby, a visionary who understood early on (when others did not) that free and open source software is necessary for defending internet freedom.
The internet freedom community trusts the OTF because the OTF is part of the internet freedom community.
We trust the OTF because they actually consist of people who understand technology, who understand past, current, and emerging threats to internet freedom, and who are internet freedom experts themselves.
Look at the OTF Advisory Council. It consists of a wide range of experts from around the world, including people like Roya Ensafi, an established Iranian computer scientist specializing on censorship measurement, and people like Ramy Raoof, a prominent Egyptian digital security researcher and technologist, who received the international award Heroes of Human Rights and Communications Surveillance “for exhaustive efforts to reveal invasive and harmful surveillance tactics that are being used to harm users at risk”.
Because the OTF Advisory Council consists of experts, they have challenged us every time we have submitted a proposal. They have pushed us to ensure that our proposal is as competitive as it can be, and that the work that we propose is relevant and supports the needs of the internet freedom community.
If it were possible to solve internet censorship by merely throwing money at a few tools, the problem would have been solved by now.
What we really need is a global community that joins forces, tackling the issue on many fronts.
Over the years, the OTF supported the creation of a global community composed of technologists, human rights defenders, journalists, policy experts, and researchers, who collaborate on fighting internet censorship and surveillance, and defending a free and open internet.
Through the Internet Freedom Festival (IFF) (that they have funded every year since its inception), the OTF created safe spaces for us to meet and exchange skills and knowledge. Through the IFF, they have enabled us to meet people from all around the world – such as activists from Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Pakistan, researchers from Iran, China, and Indonesia, and technologists from Russia and Kazakhstan.
The OTF not only funds tools and technologies to support human rights defenders. They fund the internet freedom community and ecosystem itself, which is essential to ensure long term sustainability.
Because the internet freedom community trusts the OTF, they receive funding applications from human rights defenders, technologists, and researchers working on cutting edge projects around the world.
And so redirecting funds to, instead, support a few commercial VPN services would not only harm the OTF.
It would harm the internet freedom community at large.
Trusting people is important, but not enough.
To trust technology, a basic requirement is that it is free and open source, so that you can review the code, and check if it actually works as its developers claim it works.
When software is open source, you can also identify its limitations and potentially help improve it. This is important in evaluating the security of a tool – especially when used by vulnerable communities.
To trust data, a basic requirement is that it is openly available to enable independent review and verification. As network measurement is notoriously complicated, this is particularly important when examining cases of internet censorship.
The OTF has understood the significance of openness for human rights, and it is upon these principles that it has formed its funding strategies over the years.
Applying to most funders is hard, time consuming, and requires a significant amount of in-house resources that most human rights defenders worldwide simply cannot afford.
This presents a barrier that prevents passionate human rights defenders and talented developers from submitting funding proposals.
OTF was among the first funders who broke this barrier, encouraging marginalized communities with limited resources to seek support.
Their application procedure is straightforward, accessible, and inclusive enough that it encourages and enables diverse communities far and wide to share their ideas and submit funding proposals. This is reflected in both the projects and fellowships that they support.
The fact that the OTF also supports brave and experimental ideas means that essential projects – that otherwise would not be able to navigate the bureaucracy and complexities of other larger funders – are able to receive support and have an impact on a local level.
Today, these tools (OONI Probe) are run by hundreds of thousands of people around the world – particularly in repressive environments – exposing cases of internet censorship and contributing to the world’s largest open dataset on internet censorship.
By supporting Signal over the years, the OTF enabled the development of an easy-to-use mobile app that provides end-to-end encryption.
Today, the underlying Signal encryption protocol has been integrated into a variety of widely used messaging platforms (such as WhatsApp), bringing end-to-end encryption to over a billion people worldwide.
The Internet is significantly more secure, because the OTF supported the Let’s Encrypt and Certbot projects that helped ensure that servers support HTTPS encrypted connections by default.
It’s hard to summarize the huge and multi-dimensional impact of the many important internet freedom projects that the OTF has supported over the last decade.
What we can summarize, though, is this:
If funds are redirected, human rights defenders, journalists, activists and other at-risk communities around the world – who depend on the free and open source tools supported by the OTF – will be impacted the most.
Ultimately, this will have a long-running impact on human rights and democracy worldwide.
We therefore encourage you to sign the letter to congress in support of internet freedom.