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A view of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on May 28, 2020. © 2020 Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via AP Images

(Washington) – The United States Congress should voice its support for the Open Technology Fund (OTF), a broad coalition of organizations and individuals committed to internet freedom said in a letter to members of Congress yesterday.

The fund is an independent nonprofit grantee of the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM). Over the past eight years, the fund and the projects it supports – including the encrypted message service Signal, the anonymizing browser Tor, and the secure operating systems Qubes and Tails – have enabled over two million people in more than 60 countries to safely access the internet free from censorship and repressive surveillance.

“The technologies that the Open Technology Fund supports underly nearly all of the tools we have to protect people accessing the internet in closed societies,” said Seamus Tuohy, Information Security director at Human Rights Watch. “OTF has been a credible, transparent, and trustworthy partner to global internet freedom advocates, and their work is critical to the pursuit of fundamental human rights in the digital age. The takeover of the leadership of this independent nonprofit organization is shocking and threatens to undo OTF’s many achievements.”

The Open Technology Fund’s CEO, Libby Liu, offered her resignation several days ago because she became aware of a lobbying effort that would push the group's funds toward closed-source tools rather than the open-source ones it has traditionally championed. She was fired late on the evening of June 17, 2020, effective immediately, by Michael Pack, the CEO of USAGM. Soon afterward, Pack removed the fund’s independent, expert bipartisan board of directors and replaced them with officials from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development; USAID; the US Office of Management and Budget; USAGM; and Liberty Counsel Action, an advocacy group dedicated to promoting right-wing evangelical Christian political issues with a strong anti-abortion and anti-LGBT agenda.

In addition to fostering the development of freely available tools to protect security and privacy of communications, OTF has also provided critical support for existing tools that face attack and new challenges. Its support has been critical to rallying a global community of internet freedom activists who work to overcome censorship and surveillance.

Advocates for digital rights, including Human Rights Watch, have serious concerns that new USAGM leadership will try to dismantle the fund and reallocate government funding toward closed-source technologies – severely limiting who can access them and jeopardizing users’ security. If Congress fails to block USAGM from doing so, it will risk undermining, worldwide, the realization of free speech, thought, association, worship, and other fundamental human rights for which free and open access to the internet is often vital.

The letter is also available for public sign-on here.

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