Last November, I flew to Taipei and checked into a hotel for a two-day gathering of roughly 150 activists, security researchers, and software developers from all over the world committed to helping people use technology to fight authoritarian repression and protect themselves from extremist attacks.
Taiwan’s digital minister, Audrey Tang, a hacker and open-source software developer herself, opened the conference with a speech about how citizens can use technology to advance democracy. Her audience included Tibetan and Uighur exiles who are working to help members of their communities evade arrest—or worse. People are risking their lives to share information with the outside world about events on the ground, and to disseminate facts inside China to counter the Communist Party’s official narrative.
The Taipei conference was organized by the Open Technology Fund, an independent nonprofit grantee of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which also funds Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Now a political shake-up at USAGM threatens OTF’s approach to technology development, as well as its vital support for vulnerable communities who use the technology to help them stay safe.
OTF’s chief executive, Libby Liu, offered her resignation on June 13, a week after Trump administration appointee Michael Pack was confirmed by the Senate as the agency’s new chief executive. Then on June 17 she was officially fired along with the heads of other USAGM grantee organizations. Trump’s former adviser and strategist Steve Bannon recently told the Washington Post that he had recommended Pack for the job because USAGM’s organizations were not sufficiently “on point” with the Trump administration, especially its hard-line stance against the Chinese Communist Party. Being tough on China in both words and deeds is widely reported to be the cornerstone of Trump’s reelection strategy.
A few days before Pack fired Liu, a guest on Steve Bannon’s War Room radio show denounced her. “She should be fired immediately if we want to tear down the firewall,” said Michael Horowitz, a longtime religious freedom advocate with close ties both to the Christian right and to Falun Gong, a religious organization that is banned by the Chinese Communist Party as an “evil cult.” It appears that lobbying by Horowitz and other allies in Washington factored into the decision to fire Liu, and that the same people are part of a lobbying coalition to influence OTF’s future. That’s troubling. Since at least 2009, Horowitz has been a strident advocate on Capitol Hill and in the media for government funding of software designed to circumvent internet censorship known as China’s “great firewall” designed by members of Falun Gong, such as Freegate and Ultrasurf. Both tools have been listed in letters by organizations and coalitions that Horowitz is close to. They are demanding that most of the funds earmarked by Congress to OTF as well as the State Department to support internet freedom should be redirected to these and two other organizations that provide circumvention software, instead of supporting a broader set of grantees and programs whose purpose is to advance internet freedom globally. (Full disclosure: I am founding director of New America’s Ranking Digital Rights program, which since 2016 has received funding from the U.S. State Department’s Internet Freedom program; we have also hosted several OTF-funded research fellows. New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.)