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.)
Funding Falun Gong tools would be a good way to reward political loyalty: Since 2016 the Falun Gong–affiliated Epoch Times has become an enthusiastic member of Trump’s social media cheerleading squad. But if the objective is actually to undermine the Chinese Communist Party, firing OTF’s top leadership with the intent to change the organization’s funding scope and strategy makes little sense. To anybody with knowledge of OTF’s programs and community, it is clear that a radical overhaul of OTF’s funding strategy would be a win for the CCP.
The agenda at the Taipei conference included a breakout session on how to design effective digital security training programs for civil society under threat. There were technical discussions of how internet censorship is evolving in different countries, and how software that people can use to circumvent censorship also needs to evolve as censors get more sophisticated. Several sessions brought together activists who work daily to counter Chinese government repression. One group presented new research on mass surveillance in Xinjiang. Another focused on digital security concerns of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters. Yet another working group centered on efforts in Taiwan to counter disinformation campaigns that are part of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to skew the island’s elections.
“It has taken so long to build and support a community who trust each other in situations that can be life-threatening,” Libby Liu told me. Before taking on her current role, Liu learned the value of censorship circumvention technology as head of Radio Free Asia, which started to support the development of circumvention tools after its website was blocked in China more than 20 years ago. Since 2012, OTF, which she launched, has been working to advance internet freedom in repressive environments, funding a wide range of research and software projects. OTF incubated the secure chat app Signal, used widely by protesters, political campaigns, and diplomats. Signal’s underlying open-source technology was incorporated into many other applications including WhatsApp, now owned by Facebook with 2 billion users.
Why should this bizarre fight over government funding, with its complicated cast of characters, matter to anybody outside the Washington Beltway? OTF has a responsibility to spend U.S. taxpayer money on technologies that have been vetted for security and effectiveness. Freegate and Ultrasurf, the Falun Gong–controlled tools championed by lobbyists, use closed-source, proprietary technology instead of open-source code that can be examined independently and have resisted the type of security audits that OTF requires of any software it supports. This is not a frivolous requirement when the lives of activists are at stake.
OTF’s annual budget of under $10 million may seem like peanuts in the face of what a major government invests in surveillance systems, let alone what the Chinese government spends to block its people from accessing forbidden content published outside the country’s “great firewall.” But a small amount of seed money can help get a project with no commercial viability off the ground, and targeted support can give activists an advantage at critical moments in time.
Take Hong Kong. OTF’s president, Laura Cunningham, who along with other leaders of USAGM organizations is suing to be reinstated, says that before she was fired, she and her colleagues were preparing to fund new Hong Kong–focused programs. The Chinese government has announced a new draconian national security law for Hong Kong, opening the door to extend China’s surveillance and censorship regime into the territory, which had been allowed until now to keep its own separate legal and commercial regime under a “one country, two systems” policy. “We have a very small window to work with civil society there to provide them with the technology and training they need,” she said. “It’s going to be 10 times harder to do this work once Hong Kong is behind a firewall.” When she and other USAGM leaders were fired, Pack initially froze all new grants, programs, or hiring for all USAGM organizations. The freeze was lifted on Friday as reports emerged that the administration was effectively denying critical funds to Hong Kong’s protest movement.
The Falun Gong circumvention tools won’t help Hong Kong’s protesters much. While internet censorship is expected to be a concern in Hong Kong’s near future, right now the urgent threat is China’s sophisticated surveillance technology, turbocharged by facial recognition programs and other pattern-recognition artificial intelligence, enabling authorities to track and identify activists, in turn making it possible to charge people under the new law, extradite them, and incarcerate them in mainland Chinese prisons. OTF support for countersurveillance technology and training could help give them a fighting chance.
“Freedom in China is not simple,” writes Nathan Freitas, who works with Tibetan communities through the Guardian Project and the Tibet Action Institute, and who advises OTF grantee TibCERT, an organization that supports the Tibetan community’s digital security needs. “To empower those that seek it, you need many tools, from a global toolbox, to fight on many fronts.” People need tools to securely capture, store, and transmit evidence of government abuse of power. Tibetan exiles need training and assistance to fight sophisticated Chinese government hacking of their computer systems, devices, and apps. In Xinjiang, Uighurs need help taking countermeasures to protect themselves after being forced to install government tracking apps on their cellphones. The Chinese government is also using apps operated by homegrown companies like Tencent’s WeChat to spy upon, censor, and intimidate Chinese students and professionals all over the world.
OTF supports a community of researchers, trainers, and developers to help civil society address all of these threats. Their open research, computer code, and security training techniques are being used around the world by all sorts of people. They are helping everybody everywhere who dares to speak truth to power. They make it possible for us to learn how to protect ourselves when we challenge extremists who threaten the rights of minorities or vulnerable groups. Their work must be allowed to continue. To do otherwise will be a gift to the Chinese Communist Party and autocrats around the world.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.