Dictators are Besieging Internet Freedom—and Trump Just Opened the Gates | Opinion

Last week, the Trump administration started dismantling one of the US government's most impactful agencies, the Open Technology Fund, which supports projects to counteract repressive censorship and surveillance around the world. The drastic move, coming at a time of global repression against activists and unprecedented digital threats, endangers the lives of human rights defenders and the privacy of all internet users.

The Open Technology Fund, or OTF, is relatively new, founded in 2012 as a program of the government-backed Radio Free Asia. In 2019, it became an independent non-profit reporting to the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM). Since its founding, the organization has funded dozens of projects now part of the toolkit of millions of rights advocates and journalists around the world. But OTF is now under attack: the new leadership of USAGM, appointed just weeks ago, fired the leadership of all USAGM entities, including OTF, dismissed OTF's independent and bipartisan board of directors, and is threatening to hollow out OTF altogether.

This is despite the fact that OTF has a robust track-record, particularly for such a young organization. For example, it incubated Signal, now considered one of the most private communication apps in the world. Signal is used by US policymakers, human rights defenders, and journalists alike—as well as millions of privacy-wary citizens. Another OTF-supported project is Tails, described as "one of the most secure operating systems in the world". The operating system, installed on a USB drive, leaves no trace on the computer it is used on, providing robust privacy and anonymity to thousands of journalists.

Many of those tools help those who most need it, where surveillance, censorship, and repression is most acute. Just last month, Delta Chat declined a request for user data from Russia's communication regulator—because the security architecture developed with OTF support meant it did not have any data to handover. FreeWechat, which publishes posts censored by the Chinese government on the app WeChat, has been visited over 7 million times by Chinese-speakers. Dozens more OTF-funded tools enable millions to evade surveillance by autocratic governments and access the open internet, from Cuba to Hong Kong and Iran.

OTF's work is critical to human rights defenders and journalists, but it brings privacy and security far beyond those groups. OTF only supports open-source projects, meaning that the code used must be available for anyone to view and reuse. This follows the logic of "Public Money, Public Code": if code is developed using taxpayers dollars, then that code should be freely available to citizens. That logic has meant that OTF-supported technology often ends up in mainstream products we all use everyday. The technology underpinning Signal has been adopted in countless other apps, including WhatsApp and its 2 billion users. WireGuard, a new cryptographic protocol funded by OTF, is being adopted by dozens of VPN companies and is widely seen as the future of VPN technology.

But OTF's work on internet freedom isn't limited to funding technology development. The organization takes a holistic approach to internet freedom, providing life-saving training and capacity-building to groups directly targeted by cyberattacks, harassment, and violence: LGBTQI advocates in Indonesia, journalists in Mexico, civic activists in Belarus, or exiled Tibetan organizations. OTF also funds events bringing together researchers, technologists, policy-makers, and advocates. Those gatherings—whether global like the Internet Freedom Festival or focused on specific countries or regions like the Iran Cyber Dialogue, the Vietnam Cyber Dialogue, or the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa--have been transformative. They have helped build a tight community in a space where trust is hard to achieve. Without such events, many of the projects, tools, and collaborations to circumvent censorship and counter surveillance would not exist.

Despite these notable results, OTF operates on a tiny budget by US government standards—a mere $15 million per year on average. With a team of just a dozen staff, the vast majority of the funds goes directly to projects, maximizing the impact per dollar spent. OTF is also strikingly transparent, publishing monthly and yearly reports on how it allocates funds. The efforts to dismantle OTF is all the more unsettling because the organization has enjoyed broad bipartisan support. In fact, a bill to safeguard and institutionalize the fund's mission was introduced to the House of Representatives, with accompanying legislation in the Senate and supporters on both sides of the aisle.

The impact of the Open Technology Fund is hard to overstate. In less than a decade, OTF has become a pillar of the human rights community and has already left a mark on the broader internet ecosystem. The attack by the new USAGM leadership is a threat to human rights defenders, journalists, and vulnerable communities around the world, and it is a threat to digital privacy in general. The Open Technology Fund must be protected.

Raphael Mimoun is the founder of Horizontal, a human rights technology organization. One of Horizontal's projects, Tella, is supported by the Open Technology Fund.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​