The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which oversees U.S. government broadcasters such as Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, has re-opened its Office of Internet Freedom (OIF).
OIF, which began operations in 2016, had then been closed by leadership then in charge prior to the June 4 confirmation of current CEO Michael Pack.
“There is a critical need to support technologies that allow individuals to securely access and share information online,” the agency’s Aug. 18 press release says.
“Unlike prior USAGM leadership, which sidelined OIF,” Pack said. “I consider bolstering internet firewall circumvention to be a top priority. Blocking access to information is a horrible thing…That’s why we’re funding a range of internet firewall circumvention tools.”
With the announcement that OIF is back in business, Pack is moving to re-establish control over USAGM’s circumvention efforts, which had been challenged by a previous attempt to establish a shop called the Open Technology Fund (OTF) independent of USAGM control.
At least one issue central to this conflict within USAGM is a debate over whether to use open source or closed source technology. As Pack has sought to regain control, the USAGM and a key staff member have come under attack.
Mechanisms that censor the internet are principally used in authoritarian countries such as China and Iran.
Circumventing those mechanisms is a common goal of government agencies and non-profit organizations that attempt to empower citizens in repressive regimes by opening up access to the internet, but the means for doing so are often hotly debated.
One major point of contention is the use of open-source versus closed source software (often called “proprietary”).
OIF will begin its new existence by funding one of each type. Open-source Psiphon and Cisco’s closed-source proprietary ACI are the first beneficiaries of the revived OIF.
In exclusive remarks to the Epoch Times, Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, a noted human rights expert and President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, said that “the Lantos Foundation advocates for all classes of internet freedom tools to be funded, including circumvention tools.”
“Freegate and Ultrasurf are both large scale circumvention tools that have received U.S. government funds in the past, and we would be happy to see future awards go to field-tested technologies like these that have undergone rigorous security vetting.”
“We also believe all internet freedom technologies that receive funding should be thoroughly evaluated on an ongoing basis, to ensure that funds are being spent on the most effective tools available,” Lantos Swett said.
USAGM also includes under its funding and supervisory umbrella an entity called the Open Technology Fund (OTF). It, too, like OIF, has been in the business of supporting internet firewall circumnavigation tools.
OTF, however, has been firmly in the camp of using open-source solutions exclusively since its inception as a program within Radio Free Asia.
OTF’s adamant exclusion of any internet freedom tools that are closed-source may have been one of the reasons that In September 2019, leadership of the program seemed to go rogue.
In September of last year, Washington, D.C. government records show that Libby Liu, at that time the head of RFA and the OTF program, incorporated Open Technology Fund as a domestic non-profit corporation under her own name.
Liu is listed as “Incorporator” under the “Beneficial Owners” listing of the corporation’s registration file.
Senior officials at USAGM maintain that Liu had no authorization from either the agency or from any government organization to spin OTF off into its own entity. OTF receives its entire budget from USAGM.
In addition, OTF vacated its affordable office space at USAGM headquarters and moved to an expensive office district in downtown Washington, D.C., on a taxpayer-funded lease, according to senior officials at USAGM.
In addition, according to officials, OTF did not leave a forwarding address. Officials at the USAGM say they had to search for the new offices themselves.
When Pack took office just over nine months later, he fired the heads of the USAGM networks, the OTF, including Liu, and some board members.
Now, a lawsuit seeks to invalidate those firings, and to unfreeze grant money, which dismissed officials claim is being withheld.
Senior officials at USAGM dispute the lawsuit’s claims that Pack did not have the authority to fire network directors and Liu at OTF. In addition, senior USAGM officials say that money is not being withheld from the Open Technology Fund, stating that it is being paid on a revised schedule.
Open Source vs Closed Source Software
Some experts differ with OTF’s dogmatic rejection of closed source circumvention technologies.
CoreDNA, a Australian company that provides a unified cloud platform for digital businesses, according to its Website, says that “open source software is available for the general public to use and modify from its original design free of charge.”
“What it means is that a piece of software can evolve and be iterated upon by other developers anywhere in the world.”
Therefore, CoreDNA’s blog on the subject continues, open source software “should also come with a warning label.”
“Whilst an open and peer to peer oriented web is to be applauded philosophically, it can leave us vulnerable to rogue developers who choose to break things for their own benefit. Hence the need for a warning label.”
Closed source software doesn’t need that warning label.
The source code of closed source software “is not shared with the public for anyone to look at or change,” the company says.
Lantos Swett Weighs In
In her further exclusive remarks to The Epoch Times, Lantos Swetttold The Epoch Times that “Internet freedom is the next frontier of human rights.”
Lantos Swett is also a former Chair and Vice-Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and teaches Human Rights and American Foreign Policy at Tufts University.
Lantos Swett said that there are “a few clear goals” that the foundation she leads strives to achieve.
“Open the internet to those in closed societies. Provide funding and tools to empower people to see beyond the censored views of their own totalitarian governments. Give them the freedom to learn, to organize and to thrive the same way we do in open societies.”
Unlike OTF and its supporters, however, Lantos Swett said that “we are proponents of Internet freedom in all its forms.”
“This encompasses both open and closed source technologies,” Lantos Swett said.
The key is to have “a large and flexible toolbox of technologies and approaches,” that not only protect a user’s privacy, including those under repressive surveillance, but that also and critically, “currently circumvent firewalls for millions of users in closed societies.”
It is funding for those circumvention tools that has had Lantos Swett concerned for years.
“Circumvention tools offer one of the most effective ways to bring down, for example, the Great Firewall of China,” she said.
“At the very least,” Lantos Swett continued, those tools can “punch large holes” into China’s infamous digital barricade.
Despite their effectiveness, however, recent years have seen “a trend of reduced funding,” and in some cases a “complete lack of funding” for large-scale circumvention tools, Lantos Swett added.
“We don’t view funding for internet freedom as an either/or scenario, where we have to fund only open source or exclusively circumvention tools. But we feel strongly that the latter should receive adequate funding to ensure that there is enough capacity to meet the demand coming from closed societies.”
“We also support the continuing development of new technologies,” Lantos Swett said.
Lantos Swett also weighed in on the controversy between USAGM and its erstwhile spin-off, the Open Technology Fund.
In The Hill in May, Lantos Swett wrote, “It is folly to think that the 2019 re-establishment of OTF as an independent nonprofit and the sole grantee of the USAGM’s internet freedom funds will lead to any meaningful change.”
When asked by The Epoch Times to expand on that statement, Lantos Swett wrote, “We have been advocating since 2009 to re-direct a portion of the US Government’s internet freedom funds” to what is now the USAGM.
Since then, despite potential breakthroughs, “we have equally often been disappointed when we have seen obfuscation, misdirection, and at times even blatant discrimination vis-à-vis decisions about funding.”
Despite “ongoing dialogue” with the former leadership of both USAGM and the Open Technology Fund that Libby Liu headed, “we have generally witnessed a lack of follow through on support for some of the most effective circumvention tools currently available.”
“When OTF was re-established as a non-profit in late 2019 under the same leadership, we had little confidence that we would see meaningful change and this fear was borne out.”
Lantos Sett is “cautiously optimistic”, however, that the changes at USAGM may result in “increased funding for circumvention tools, alongside continued funding for other types of internet freedom tools.”
“We welcome a move in this direction, but given what we have witnessed in the past, we’re going to reserve our judgment until we actually see what action the leadership at USAGM takes.”
“Again, our goal is to open up the internet in closed societies. We look forward to working with anyone who shares this goal, and we’re supportive of pursuing the full range of tools and approaches that hold promise for reaching it,” Lantos Swett concluded.
Attacks on USAGM
Since the firings, USAGM and one member of Pack’s staff, in particular, have come under attack on social media and in the press.
Mora Namdar, Vice-president of Legal Compliance and Risk at USAGM, has been a key focus of disparagement on Twitter.
One Twitter user wrote,
“Nima Fatemi@mrphs Jul 24This is an absurd intimidation tactic being employed by Michael Pack and his disgrace of “acting VP for legal matters”; A new low standard for the US government. Big congrats to Mora Namdar for becoming a sock puppet for the fascists. #saveinternetfreedom”
The “tactic” to which Fatemi refers is likely the unscheduled visit which Namdar made to OTF’s new office, once its location had been identified.
Fatemi is described as an “independent security researcher, focused on encryption, privacy and censorship circumvention technologies,” on the website, https://dxfest.com/speaker/nima-fatemi/.
Pack came to Namdar’s defense in a press release and on Twitter.
“The attempts of those with money and power to disparage her are transparent, weak, and without merit. I am lucky to have Ms. Namdar on my team,” Pack wrote.
Pack tweeted on Aug. 21 that “The campaign being waged by individuals who seem more concerned about covering up corruption and past failures than working on behalf of the American people should outrage every American citizen. In particular, the personal and false attacks launched against Mora Namdar and other members of my staff working to advance freedom and human rights are totally without merit.”
“One can only surmise that OTF’s desire to foment scandal is to distract from its numerous serious lapses and unwillingness to be transparent about its activities.”
Namdar is a lawyer, a daughter of immigrants who fled Iran after the 1979 revolution, and a recognized human rights activist.
Namdar told The Epoch Times that “all of the people who have attacked me have never met me.”
“I’m an ardent supporter of rooting out corruption,” Namdar said.
Namdar has been heartened, though, by some of the responses to social media slurs directed at her.
“On Twitter, people I don’t know have jumped on the bandwagon to defend me.”
Pack, a Trump appointee whose nomination languished in the Senate for more than two years, had already withstood one spate of fierce media criticism earlier in the summer from Democrats and some never-Trump Republicans as a tool-in-waiting of the president who would pursue a policy of selective speech in favor of the administration.
The predictions of interference from the White House into the journalistic process at networks like Voice of America have to date not been realized.
In the meantime, on July 1, the Open Technology Fund posted a notice on its website titled “Pause in September Round.” The notice went on to say:
“Due to the current lack of clarity around the availability and timeline of the remainder of our FY2020 funds, we have decided to postpone the opening of the upcoming rounds of the Internet Freedom Fund and the Core Infrastructure Fund and will not accept submissions.”
It goes on to tell readers that “We are always available for your questions – feel free to contact team members directly or get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org. ”
However, no one replied to our request for comment sent to that email address. In addition, the email address for press inquiries that is listed on OTF’s Website bounced back the message we sent to it. No phone number for the organization is listed on the Website. The LinkedIn listings for Libby Liu and Laura Cunningham, the principal director of OTF under Liu, do not include a Message function.