Firings at U.S. non-profit spark concern among digital rights activists

by Avi Asher-Schapiro | @AASchapiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 2 July 2020 16:21 GMT

FILE PHOTO: A man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him in this illustration picture taken on May 13, 2017.. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration/File Photo

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The Open Technology Fund had pledged $10 million this year to some of the most important global digital rights efforts

By Avi Asher-Schapiro

NEW YORK, July 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Digital rights groups fear they are losing a crucial source of support as President Donald Trump's administration consolidates control over a government-backed non-profit that bolsters internet freedom projects around the world.

In June, Trump appointee Michael Pack was confirmed as chief executive officer of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which funds the Open Technology Fund (OTF).

Pack promptly fired the entire OTF leadership, leaving in limbo more than $10 million it had pledged to internet freedom projects this year, the Fund's recently-dismissed president, Laura Cunningham, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Digital rights activists and researchers now worry that the turmoil at the OTF could threaten people living in authoritarian countries who rely on the organization to help them navigate censorship and evade surveillance.

"It could leave people open to attack," said digital rights advocate Trinh Nguyen, who trains activists across Southeast Asia to respond to censorship, surveillance and other digital threats.

Pack said in a statement last month that "every action I carried out was – and every action I will carry out will be – geared toward rebuilding the USAGM's reputation, boosting morale, and improving content".

WHAT IS THE OPEN TECHNOLOGY FUND?

The OTF is not a government agency and its staff are not government employees, but the organization relies on funding dispersed through the USAGM to operate.

Since its founding in 2012, the OTF has been responsible for helping fund some of the most widely used digital rights tools in the world, including the encrypted messaging app Signal and the anonymous internet browser Tor.

"The private sector is not investing in these kinds of tools - like secure communications and censorship circumvention," explained Cunningham.

The OTF has funded a wide array of digital rights projects, from digital security training for LGBT+ activists in Nigeria to monitoring internet censorship in Ukraine.

WHY THE RECENT CONTROVERSY?

As head of the USAGM, Pack oversees several U.S.-funded news outlets, including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, as well as the OTF.

After his confirmation last month, he dismissed the leadership of most of those agencies, and others resigned. Pack then replaced the bipartisan boards that govern and advise the services mostly with appointees from Trump's administration.

Some critics of the OTF's current focus, including the non-profit Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice, have been lobbying the U.S. government to channel the Fund's efforts towards tools to circumvent censorship in countries like China.

But some of those resources use "closed-source" software, meaning they do not publish their code and cannot be audited by outside researchers, according to Cunningham.

She noted that during her tenure, the OTF only supported open-source projects.

"If we're not able to review and audit the code, we can't guarantee that technology is secure, and we could be putting our users at even greater risk," she said.

Lantos Foundation spokeswoman Chelsea Hedquist said that it supports funding open source technology as well as "effective circumvention tools that are not completely open source".

"These tools are currently providing uncensored internet access to millions of people living behind government firewalls on a daily basis," she added.

WHAT DO THE FIRINGS MEAN FOR DIGITAL RIGHTS?

Fearing that their funding is under threat, digital rights advocates working with the OTF are sounding the alarm.

"With the OTF leadership removed overnight, I am concerned," said Nima Fatemi, the Iranian founder of U.S.-based cybersecurity non-profit Kandoo, which was seeded earlier this year with about $50,000 in OTF funding.

OTF helps Kandoo research and document the Iranian regime's creeping internet restrictions, Fatemi said. Kandoo also works with other OTF-backed groups to provide Iranian activists with proxies and hosting services to bypass censorship.

Digital rights campaigner Nguyen is the head of safety and technology for the OTF-funded Internet Freedom Festival, which brings together digital rights groups and activists from all over the world to collaborate and plan research.

Pack's decision leaves the future of her work uncertain, said Nguyen, who is also worried about a Vietnamese-language digital help desk she co-founded with support from the OTF.

The help desk provides emergency services for activists to secure their online accounts after they are arrested or find their social media hijacked.

If the OTF pivots away from this kind of work, she said, "people's lives could be in danger".

Carlos Guerra, a Chilean digital rights researcher who uses OTF funding for his project scanning cities in Latin America for cell phone surveillance, is also concerned.

"If no one funds the project, we can't keep doing the research," he said, noting that his findings recently sparked wider investigations into surveillance abuses in Mexico and Bolivia.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

A lawsuit filed on June 23 on behalf of the OTF and four dismissed USAGM board members states that Pack does not have the legal authority to interfere in the agencies.

A USAGM spokesman said that "Michael Pack understands the scale and nature of the threat posed by opponents of freedom of expression."

"All of the actions that CEO Michael Pack took are legal, and he stands by them," he said in emailed comments.

Meanwhile, digital rights groups are circulating a letter, signed by more than 500 organizations, protesting the overhaul of the OTF.

"The U.S. is in danger of losing the most effective program that Congress has at its disposal for defending internet freedom," the letter warns.

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(Reporting by Avi Asher-Schapiro @AASchapiro, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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