Open Technology Fund
The Open Technology Fund (OTF) is an American nonprofit corporation that aims to support global Internet freedom technologies. Its mission is to "support open technologies and communities that increase free expression, circumvent censorship, and obstruct repressive surveillance as a way to promote human rights and open societies." As of November 2019, the Open Technology Fund became an independent nonprofit corporation and a grantee of the U.S. Agency for Global Media. Until its formation as an independent entity, it had operated as a program of Radio Free Asia.
|Purpose||The support of Internet censorship circumvention and Internet privacy technologies|
|Headquarters||2025 M Street NW, Suite 300|
|U.S. Agency for Global Media|
The Open Technology Fund was created in 2012 as a pilot program within Radio Free Asia. Under U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the State Department adopted a policy of supporting global internet freedom initiatives. At this time, RFA began looking into technologies that helped their audiences avoid censorship and surveillance. Journalist Eli Lake argued that Clinton's policy was "heavily influenced by the Internet activism that helped organize the green revolution in Iran in 2009 and other revolutions in the Arab world in 2010 and 2011".
In March 2017, the OTF's future was reported as under question due to the Trump administration's unclear positions on Internet freedom issues. Since then, the OTF has continued to receive Congressional funding under the Trump administration.
In November 2019, OTF announced it had become an independent nonprofit corporation.
Organization and fundingEdit
This section relies largely or entirely on a single source. (June 2020)
The Open Technology Fund operated for seven years as a program of Radio Free Asia, a U.S. government-funded, nonprofit international corporation that provides news, information and commentary in East Asia. Since 2019, the OTF has had its own Board of Directors and receives its funding directly from the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), an independent agency of the U.S. government. The OTF is sustained by annual grants from the USAGM, which originate from yearly U.S. Congressional appropriations for State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. According to the OTF, it works with other publicly funded programs to fulfill a U.S. Congressional mandate to sustain and increase global freedom of information on the Internet with public funds.
The OTF funds third-party audits for all the code-related projects it supports. It has also offered to fund audits of "non-OTF supported projects that are in use by individuals and organizations under threat of censorship/surveillance". Notable projects whose audits the OTF has sponsored include Cryptocat, Commotion Wireless, TextSecure, GlobaLeaks, MediaWiki, OpenPGP.js, Nitrokey, and Ricochet. The OTF also matched donations to the auditing of TrueCrypt. In 2014, the OTF reported that it had funded more than 30 technology code audits over the past three years, identifying 185 privacy and security vulnerabilities in both OTF and non-OTF-funded projects.
In 2015, The Tor Project announced that OTF would sponsor a bug bounty program coordinated by HackerOne. The program was initially invite-only and focuses on finding vulnerabilities that are specific to The Tor Project's applications.
In October 2019, OTF Technology Director Sarah Aoun discussed the findings of OTF-funded research into a Chinese government mobile application, telling ABC News that the app essentially amounts to a "surveillance device in your pocket." "The access itself is significant", OTF Research Director Adam Lynn told The Washington Post. "The fact that they've gone to these lengths [to hide it] only further heightens the scrutiny around this."
According to its funding agency, the U.S. Agency for Global Media, OTF's impact by 2019 was global, with over 2 billion people using OTF-supported technology daily, and more than two-thirds of all mobile users having OTF-incubated technology on their devices. "As authoritarian states worldwide increasingly attempt to control what their citizens read, write, and even share online," said OTF CEO Libby Liu, "this next stage in OTF's growth could not come at a more crucial time."
OTF had $2 million of funding from the USAGM to assist with the 2019–20 Hong Kong protests, but this funding was frozen by USAGM CEO Michael Pack in June 2020 as China was preparing to introduce a new national security law for Hong Kong.
Dispute Over BoardEdit
On June 17, 2020, the newly appointed head of USAGM, Michael Pack, fired the board of OTF and CEO Libby Liu. Liu had already tendered her resignation on June 13, 2020, effective July 13, 2020, on a separate issue regarding the usage of closed-source software. The new board was named, consisting of Jonathan Alexandre (Senior Counsel, Liberty Counsel Action), Robert Bowes (Senior Advisor to the Secretary, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), Bethany Kozma (Deputy Chief of Staff, United States Agency for International Development), Rachel Semmel (Communications Director, Office of Management and Budget), Emily Newman (Chief of Staff, USAGM), and Pack as Chairman. The next day, the board fired president Laura Cunningham. On June 23, 2020, the office of the District of Columbia's attorney general filed suit contesting the changes under the District of Columbia's Nonprofit Corporations Act. The lawsuit alleged that the actions violated the "firewall" clause in federal communications regulations that shield government news agencies from political interference. On July 21, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeal for the District of Columbia blocked the findings in an emergency stay. In a two-page order, warning that these actions could endanger the work of activists against Internet censorship in countries with repressive government. On October 16, 2020, in a separate case, the DC Superior Court ruled that the changes were unlawful, reinstated the previous board and ruled that any changes the new board made were invalid.
Beginning in August 2020, OTF came under increasing pressure from Pack and USAGM leadership. According to Axios, this was related to OTF’s reluctance to extend grants to Falun Gong-related enterprises working on technology directed against China’s Great Firewall; the New York Times noted Falun Gong and its Epoch Times media group often supported the Trump administration. On August 18, USAGM announced it was setting up its own Office of Internet Freedom with less strict grant requirements and began soliciting OTF’s grantees to apply to the new office. On August 20, OTF sued USAGM in the US Court for Federal Claims for withholding nearly $20 million in previously agreed grants.
In June 2020, OTF asked law firm McGuireWoods, which had been advising it pro bono, for help in its conflict with the USAGM and Pack. McGuireWoods said it could not help in the case. OTF learned in December 2020 that the reason was that McGuireWoods had decided to investigate OTF on behalf of USAGM and Pack instead. The Government Accountability Project, citing records obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, claimed McGuireWoods had billed USAGM $1.625 million at an average rate of $320 an hour after receiving a no-bid contract to investigate OTF as well as Voice of America employees.
- Freedom of the Press Foundation – a non-governmental organization that has also supported some of the same projects that the OTF has supported
- Mass surveillance – the intricate surveillance of an entire or a substantial fraction of a population in order to monitor that group of citizens
- NetFreedom Task Force – an initiative within the U.S. Department of State that was established in February 2006
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