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.

Creating the first free and open source tools for measuring internet censorship

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 Russia and 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 work.

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 team, 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:

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.

Supporting a global community fighting internet censorship

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 media platforms during the November 2017 protests. As an outcome, the Islamabad High Court declared that the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority cannot regulate content without following the due process, the principles of transparency, and oversight.

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 community.

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.