America’s free voice comes under President Trump’s control, amid fears of no more funding for open source for Internet freedom.
“Wednesday night massacre” as dubbed by CNN is when, last week, the directors of four organizations controlled by the U.S. Global Media Agency (USAGM) were fired: Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Middle East Broadcasting, and the Open Technology Fund (OTF).
USAGM is one of the mid-sized federal agencies that over the years has ensured the spread of the US national interests, defined in a somewhat rhetorical way as “democracy, freedom, and transparency”, through global communication.
The recent choice of Trump’s loyal CEO, Michel Pack, who was appointed with the aim of boosting the agency’s effectiveness and making it work in the interests of the President Trump, was a resounding one.
But what makes the ground of confrontation glowing is the attempt by the Open Technology Fund to secure independent funding from the USAGM in Congress, to prevent the funds allocated so far from being diverted from the program carried out over the past eight years supporting secure open source technologies.
“The technologies that the Open Technology Fund is funding are the basis of almost all protection tools for people accessing the Internet in closed societies,” said Seamus Tuohy, Director of Information Security at Human Rights Watch. “OTF is a credible, transparent, and trustworthy partner for advocates of freedom on the internet globally, and their work is fundamental to the pursuit of fundamental human rights in the digital age. The change at the top of this independent non-profit organization threatens to undo the enviable results achieved so far”.
OTF is one of the main contributors to open technologies and free software for the security of communication and expression online.
“But OTF is not only funding cutting-edge technologies that support human rights activists, like our project – says Arturo Filastò, director of the OONI project, which is the first platform that documents how Internet censorship worldwide – it also supports the global “Internet Freedom” community, which is essential to ensure that these solutions are sustainable in the long term”.
Rima Sghaier, digital rights activist and researcher, nominated by The Guardian as one of the top 10 emerging talents to lead the digital transformation of the African continent states that OTF “has always encouraged small communities around the world, otherwise marginalized, supporting their efforts to develop open source technologies towards increasing at-risk users’ digital security, enabling free expression and defending global Internet Freedom”.
Projects such as TOR, Signal, LetsEncrypt, Tails, and many others, including the Italian ones, GlobaLeaks, OONI, and NoScript, would never have reached maturity without the Open Technology Fund support.
“Today we are seeing an expansion of state surveillance in its most perverse form,” said Mikuláš Peksa, MEP of the Pirate Party. “People are losing their freedom while their data is being exploited by companies and governments. Free software is the crucial tool to ensure digital self-determination, the cornerstone of democracy, and individual rights in the 21st century.”
The fact that these communities funded by the OTF are attentive to the aspects of privacy and autonomy, and not only because they make “free software”, makes these technologies the most effective for promoting freedom anywhere in the world. Even in the United States.
In fact, while the US intelligence agencies have had an easy time convincing proprietary producers to introduce service access to their software to allow investigations and espionage activities, in the case of these open-source tools they have never been able to achieve these results. The use of solid cryptographic technologies and the adoption of open and shared approaches do not allow areas of opacity and therefore make the introduction of backdoors impossible.
For these communities, the ideas of privacy and freedom are uncompromising goals that appear to be at odds with those of the current US administration and probably governments around the world (just think of what the Italian government did with the Trojans made available to investigators).
In the clash for independence, the CEO of the Open Technology Fund, Libby Liu, had already resigned effective from the beginning of July, just because she learned of the attempt to divert funds from open-source technologies. She was nonetheless fired on Wednesday night.
There is one aspect of this story that directly concerns Italy because, thanks to OTF funding, some projects born and raised in Italy have managed to build solid and internationally recognizable entities.
They include Globaleaks, the whistleblowing software adopted among others by the Italian Anti-Corruption Authority (Anac), but also by the International Criminal Court, Amnesty International, Transparency International, Le Monde and hundreds of other organizations and media recognized worldwide. Thanks to Globaleaks, in partnership with Transparency International Italy, an open platform called WhistleblowingPA has recently been created in Italy to allow any local authority or administration to create its own secure whistleblowing system for free and in compliance with the national law and rules established by ANAC.
“In no uncertain terms, the financing of OTF, in the seminal phases of the project, has been decisive – says Fabio Pietrosanti, president of the Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights, and promoter of Globaleaks- to reach the level of quality that has allowed us to offer a mature software and to gain a role, now undisputed, in this sector”.
Davide Del Monte, executive director of Transparency International in Italy, “thanks to Globaleaks, we had the opportunity to develop ALAC – Anti-Corruption Alert, the first free helpline for Italian whistleblowers, which paved the way for the various legislative initiatives on the subject and is the founder of the subsequent whistleblowing platforms, including that of the Italian Anti-Corruption Authority, implemented a few years later”.
Funded by OTF and Italian is also NoScript, an addon to avoid user tracking. “The aspect that clearly demonstrates the far-sightedness of the ideas of the director of the OTF with its targeted funding – says Giorgio Maone, founder of NoScript – was precisely the ability to invest in small communities that are committed to the creation of tools that companies dominated by a logic of profit would never have put in the pipeline and that instead remain today, thanks to their characteristic of being public and open, available to all and have been integrated into systems that would have been impossible to achieve otherwise”.
OTF’s attempt to gain financial independence, to continue supporting internet freedom and democracy worldwide for once without the use of weapons and military, was the main cause of the clash in the USAGM, which ended with the beheading of the entire line of directors.
Save Internet Freedom is leading an international mobilization to ask the delegates of the US Congress to maintain funding for free software in the OTF. And Italian projects are, of course, on the front line. You can sign at saveinternetfreedom.tech.