Support the OTF: Support a Free and Open Internet
Over the last month, the Open Technology Fund (OTF) – one of the main funders of free
censorship circumvention and privacy-enhancing technologies that human
rights defenders worldwide rely on – has been under threat, following
the ousting of its leadership.
We previously published a statement in support of the OTF,
explaining why we think the OTF is essential for internet freedom
and encouraging the public to sign the letter to congress.
In this post, we share our experience working with the OTF, and discuss
how they have played a crucial role in supporting the fight against
internet censorship worldwide.
We first received OTF support
back in 2012, when free and open source software for measuring internet
censorship didn’t really exist.
While there were great projects measuring internet censorship at the
time (such as the OpenNet Initiative, which
has inspired our work in many ways), there wasn’t really a free tool
available that anyone around the world could run to independently
measure internet censorship. Moreover, the measurements collected as
part of censorship measurement experiments weren’t always openly
published, limiting transparency of internet censorship and making it
hard to verify censorship claims and research findings.
We therefore sought to create the first open framework for measuring
internet censorship and other forms of network interference around the
world. In practice, this meant:
By creating open methodologies, building free and open source software,
and openly publishing all network measurements collected from around the
world, our goal was to increase transparency of internet censorship
worldwide (thereby supporting policy and advocacy efforts, and the
development and deployment of circumvention tools), enable the
independent, third-party verification of our findings, support
reproducible research, and to encourage researchers and developers
worldwide to help us improve our methods.
Thanks to OTF support
over the years, we have managed to achieve this goal.
Today, our censorship measurement apps – called OONI Probe – are run by hundreds of thousands
of users in more than 200 countries every month. In fact, a large volume of tests are run in
countries with pervasive levels of internet censorship, such as
Iran (and many tests are
regularly run in countries like
China as well). As soon as
OONI Probe tests are run anywhere around the world, the test results are
(automatically) openly published in near real-time.
OONI Explorer and the OONI
API not only serve as the largest open
datasets on internet censorship to date, but they also enable human
rights defenders to track global censorship events as they emerge.
Supporting innovative projects requires expertise
Realistically, very few funders would have supported a project like OONI
back in 2012. Funding software development is often thought of as a
risky investment, and even more so when it’s carried out by an
organization that hasn’t received funding support before, or which is
not well-known within funder circles. Ultimately, this means that
passionate and talented researchers, developers, and human rights
defenders who could potentially play a pivotal role in defending
internet freedom don’t receive support, limiting the impact of their
This is why the OTF is so crucial for the internet freedom community.
Rather than mainly supporting established organizations, the OTF sought
to identify passionate activists and developers from across the globe
and help bring their innovative ideas to life.
No idea is “too innovative” or “too risky” to support, as long as it’s
realistically feasible. To evaluate whether an idea is realistically
feasible, you need to have in-house experts.
Because the OTF had internet freedom experts in its
leadership, and Advisory Council, it was
able to successfully support a number of innovative projects over the
last 8 years that advanced internet freedom worldwide.
From our own personal experience (having submitted multiple proposals to
the OTF over the years), this has meant that when we submitted a funding
proposal, it was evaluated by the OTF’s highly specialized team and
Advisory Council, both of whom share lots of feedback.
Through these rounds of feedback, their goal has always been to ensure
that the proposed project:
is relevant and supports the needs of the internet freedom
is as competitive as it can be;
is realistically feasible;
can be practically implemented based on a specified and reasonable
acknowledges existing efforts and advances the field.
Because the OTF’s team and Advisory Council consist of internet freedom
experts from around the world (including repressive environments), they
are well-positioned to understand community needs and how projects can
support them. They are also extremely well-positioned to help
innovative projects actually succeed once they have received support.
Over the years, the OTF team has helped us grow OONI by offering
continuous guidance, advice and support, often challenging us and
encouraging us to prioritize community needs. This was possible because
the OTF was led by internet freedom defenders and experts.
Creating free and open source software to fight internet censorship is
important, but not enough.
We need people to run this software, and we need people to engage others
with censorship measurement. We need people to discuss why measuring
internet censorship is important to begin with.
We need human rights defenders to inform their advocacy and policy efforts with censorship
measurement data. We need lawyers to challenge illegal censorship events
in courts with censorship measurement data that can serve as evidence.
We need journalists to encourage public
debate on hidden cases of internet censorship. We need researchers and
developers to improve censorship circumvention techniques and
technologies – which can be enabled with more knowledge of how internet censorship is implemented worldwide.
Because the OTF understands the value of a global community in defending
internet freedom, they not only fund tools and research – they fund
the entire internet freedom ecosystem.
In the context of our work, this has meant support for the establishment
and development of the OONI Partnership Program, a global
coalition of human rights organizations collaborating on increasing
transparency of internet censorship through OONI Probe censorship measurement.
These partnerships have contributed to the expansion of the breadth and
granularity of global coverage of censorship events, as our partners
have contributed stable measurements and engaged their local communities
with censorship measurement research and advocacy.
Collaboration with talented technologists around the world has also
resulted in the expansion and improvement of our censorship measurement
methodologies, particularly when such collaboration involved running experiments in countries like Iran, which experience
sophisticated and pervasive levels of internet censorship.
A few years ago, the OTF also supported the OONI Partner Gathering, a
two-day event which brought all of our partners together to share skills
and knowledge around censorship measurement research. This event enabled
us to gain a deeper understanding of community needs
and to involve our partners in shaping our software development priorities
based on their needs.
Thanks to OTF support, we have collaborated with human rights
organizations in more than 27 countries in Asia, the Middle East,
Africa, East Europe, and Latin America. These partnerships have resulted
in the improvement of censorship measurement resources and in the
publication of multiple research reports,
sharing data on censorship events worldwide.
These research reports have supported the advocacy efforts of Access
Now’s KeepItOn campaign, a
global coalition of human rights organizations fighting internet
shutdowns around the world. Recently, OONI data supported a High Court
petition in Pakistan,
which challenged the blocking of media websites and popular social
during the November 2017 protests. As an outcome, the Islamabad High
that the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority cannot regulate content
without following the due process, the principles of transparency, and
To increase the sustainability of our work, the OTF has not only
supported the expansion of the OONI-verse by supporting our
community work, but they have also supported many of our partners
directly, who have built their own regional censorship dashboards and published
independent research (through
the use of OONI Probe and OONI data).
To aid the global fight against internet censorship, the OTF has
supported global and local communities around the world. And this is
precisely why the internet freedom community trusts the OTF.
Trust in leadership
It is essential that OTF leadership continues to consist of
individuals who are part of and trusted by the internet freedom
Over the last years, the OTF has received funding proposals from
marginalized communities in repressive environments because there has
been trust towards the organization’s leadership.
If OTF were to lose that trust, it would likely also lose applications
from individuals who are best-positioned to combat internet censorship
and defend internet freedom.
If future OTF leadership is not already part of the internet freedom
community, they will likely not have the insight and expertise
necessary for determining which projects deserve support in order to
best serve community needs and defend internet freedom.
We therefore request that OTF leadership continues to consist of
individuals trusted by the internet freedom community.
We encourage you to join us in signing this letter to congress in support of the OTF, in
support of internet freedom as we know it.