Open Technology Fund

The Open Technology Fund (OTF) is an American nonprofit corporation[7] 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."[1] As of November 2019, the Open Technology Fund became an independent nonprofit corporation and a grantee of the U.S. Agency for Global Media.[7] Until its formation as an independent entity, it had operated as a program of Radio Free Asia.[7]

Open Technology Fund
Open Technology Fund logo.svg
Formation2012 (2012)
PurposeThe support of Internet censorship circumvention and Internet privacy technologies[1][2]
Headquarters2025 M Street NW, Suite 300
Libby Liu[3][4]
Laura Cunningham[3][4]
Parent organization
U.S. Agency for Global Media
AffiliationsU.S. Government
US$15 million[5]


The Open Technology Fund was created in 2012 as a pilot program within Radio Free Asia.[2][7] Under U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the State Department adopted a policy of supporting global internet freedom initiatives.[8] At this time, RFA began looking into technologies that helped their audiences avoid censorship and surveillance.[8] 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".[8]

In September 2014, the OTF worked with Google and Dropbox to create an organization called Simply Secure to help improve the usability of privacy tools.[9]

In March 2017, the OTF's future was reported as under question due to the Trump administration's unclear positions on Internet freedom issues.[10] 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.[7]

In June 2020, Libby Liu resigned as CEO of OTF.[11][12]

Organization and fundingEdit

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.[2] 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.[2] 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.[2]


The OTF funds third-party audits for all the code-related projects it supports.[13] 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".[13] Notable projects whose audits the OTF has sponsored include Cryptocat,[14] Commotion Wireless,[15] TextSecure,[15] GlobaLeaks,[15] MediaWiki,[16] OpenPGP.js,[17] Nitrokey,[18] and Ricochet.[19] The OTF also matched donations to the auditing of TrueCrypt.[20] 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.[13]

In 2015, The Tor Project announced that OTF would sponsor a bug bounty program coordinated by HackerOne.[21][22] The program was initially invite-only and focuses on finding vulnerabilities that are specific to The Tor Project's applications.[21]

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."[23] "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."[24]

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.[5] "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."[4]

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.[25][26]

Dispute Over BoardEdit

On June 17, 2020, the newly appointed head of USAGM, Michael Pack, fired the board of OTF and CEO Libby Liu.[27][28] 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.[12] 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.[29] 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.[30] 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.[31][32]

Beginning in August 2020, OTF came under increasing pressure from Pack and USAGM leadership. According to Axios,[33][34] 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.[35] 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.[36][37] On August 20, OTF sued USAGM in the US Court for Federal Claims for withholding nearly $20 million in previously agreed grants.[38]

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.[39] 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.[40]

See alsoEdit

  • 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


  1. ^ a b "Values & Principles". Open Technology Fund. Retrieved 20 October 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d e "OTF's History". Open Technology Fund. Retrieved 20 October 2019.
  3. ^ a b "Open Technology Fund Names CEO, President". MeriTalk. 26 November 2019.
  4. ^ a b c "USAGM launches independent internet freedom grantee". USAGM. 25 November 2019.
  5. ^ a b "Open Technology Fund". USAGM. Retrieved 30 December 2019.
  6. ^ "Team". Open Technology Fund. Retrieved 18 October 2019.
  7. ^ a b c d e "A New, Independent OTF". Open Technology Fund. Retrieved 2019-11-26.
  8. ^ a b c Lake, Eli (18 September 2015). "Government Is Fighting Itself on Encryption". Bloomberg View (Column). Bloomberg L.P. Retrieved 15 February 2016. Note: The author uses "Open Whisper" when referring to Open Whisper Systems.
  9. ^ Rushe, Dominic (18 September 2014). "Google and Dropbox launch Simply Secure to improve online security". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 14 February 2016.
  10. ^ Melendez, Steven (24 March 2017). "U.S.-Backed Efforts To Promote Openness And Democracy Are At Risk In The Age Of Trump". Fast Company. Fast Company, Inc.
  11. ^ Wong, Edward (2020-06-15). "V.O.A. Directors Resign After Bannon Ally Takes Charge of U.S. Media Agency". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-06-17.
  12. ^ a b Cox, Joseph (2020-06-17). "CEO of Open Technology Fund Resigns After Closed-Source Lobbying Effort". Vice. Retrieved 2020-06-17.
  13. ^ a b c Hurley, Chad (10 December 2014). "Code Audits are Good. Making Code Audits Public is Better". Open Technology Fund. Retrieved 14 February 2016.
  14. ^ Diquet, Alban; Thiel, David; Stender, Scott (7 February 2014). "Open Technology Fund CryptoCat iOS Application Penetration Test" (PDF). iSEC Partners. Retrieved 13 February 2016.
  15. ^ a b c Ritter, Tom (14 October 2013). "Working with the Open Technology Fund". iSEC Partners. Retrieved 13 February 2016.
  16. ^ Steipp, Chris (20 April 2015). "Improving the security of our users on Wikimedia sites". Wikimedia Blog. Wikimedia Foundation. Retrieved 13 February 2016.
  17. ^ Heiderich, Mario; Kotowicz, Krzysztof; Magazinius, Jonas; Antesberger, Franz (February 2014). "Pentest-Report OpenPGP.js 02.2014" (PDF). Cure53. Retrieved 14 February 2016.
  18. ^ McDevitt, Dan (2 October 2015). "Nitrokey Storage Firmware and Hardware Security Audits". Open Technology Fund. Retrieved 15 February 2016.
  19. ^ Cox, Joseph (17 February 2016). "'Ricochet', the Messenger That Beats Metadata, Passes Security Audit". Motherboard. Vice Media LLC. Retrieved 17 February 2016.
  20. ^ White, Kenneth; Green, Matthew (21 January 2014). "IsTrueCryptAuditedYet?". Open Crypto Audit Project. Retrieved 14 February 2016.
  21. ^ a b Cox, Joseph (29 December 2015). "The Tor Project Is Starting a Bug Bounty Program". Motherboard. Vice Media LLC. Retrieved 14 February 2016.
  22. ^ Conditt, Jessica (31 December 2015). "Tor plans to launch a bug bounty program". Engadget. AOL Inc. Retrieved 14 February 2016.
  23. ^ Thorbecke, Catherine (18 October 2019). "China's popular education app is a 'surveillance device in your pocket,' advocacy group says". Good Morning America.
  24. ^ Fifield, Anna (12 October 2019). "Chinese app on Xi's ideology allows data access to 100 million users' phones, report says". The Washington Post.
  25. ^ Perrigo, Billy (26 June 2020). "Trump Administration Freezes Funds Intended to Benefit Hong Kong Protesters". Time. Retrieved 5 July 2020.
  26. ^ Lo, Alex (3 July 2020). "US has been exposed for funding last year's Hong Kong protests". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 5 July 2020.
  27. ^ Jennifer Hansler and Brian Stelter. "'Wednesday night massacre' as Trump appointee takes over at global media agency". CNN. Retrieved 2020-10-18.
  28. ^ Welle (, Deutsche. "Trump-backed US global media agency chief under fire for purge | DW | 19.06.2020". DW.COM. Retrieved 2020-10-17.
  29. ^ Verma, Pranshu (2020-06-23). "Lawsuit Argues Dismissal of Government-Funded Media Employees Was Unlawful". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-10-17.
  30. ^ Hsu, Spencer S. "Appeals court blocks Trump administration takeover of organization fighting digital censorship and surveillance". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2020-10-17.
  31. ^ "DC Court Rules in Dispute Over Open Technology Fund Board | Voice of America - English". Retrieved 2020-10-17.
  32. ^ "Summary Judgment DC v Pack" (PDF). Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia.
  33. ^ Allen-Ebrahamian, Bethany (23 June 2020). "In media agency shakeup, conservative groups push for Falun Gong-backed internet tools". Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  34. ^ Sewell, Tia (12 January 2021). "Trump's War on the U.S. Agency for Global Media". Lawfare. Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  35. ^ Roose, Kevin (5 February 2020). "Epoch Times, Punished by Facebook, Gets a New Megaphone on YouTube". New York Times. Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  36. ^ "CEO Pack revives USAGM's Office of Internet Freedom; agency funds internet firewall circumvention technologies". US Agency for Global Media. Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  37. ^ Fischer, Sara (13 October 2020). "Scoop: USAGM soliciting OTF partners as it withholds funds". Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  38. ^ Fischer, Sara (20 August 2020). "Scoop: Open Technology Fund sues administration for $20M in missing funds". Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  39. ^ Folkenflik, David (10 March 2021). "'I Was Speechless': Law Firm Investigated Its Own Ex-Client For Trump VOA Chief". National Public Radio. Retrieved 20 March 2021.
  40. ^ "Press Release: Whistleblowers Reveal More Alarming Details About Law Firm Contracts Awarded by Voice of America Overseer to Investigate Federal Employees". Government Accountability Project. Retrieved 20 March 2021.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit