Trump’s Plan To Turn US Global Media Operations Into State-Sponsored Breitbart… Could Threaten The Open (And Encrypted) Internet

Earlier this week you may have heard about the so-called “Wednesday night massacre”, in which the newly Trump-appointed head of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), Michael Pack, got rid of the heads of the various divisions he now runs:

The heads of four organizations overseen by the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) were all dismissed Wednesday night — a move likely to heighten concerns that new Trump-appointed CEO Michael Pack intends to turn the agency into a political arm of the administration.

In what a former official described as a “Wednesday night massacre,” the heads of Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Open Technology Fund were all ousted, multiple sources told CNN.

Two days earlier, the top officials at Voice of America (the other major part of USAGM) resigned after Pack made it clear that rather than being an independent, non-partisan media operation, he intended to turn the various media operations he controlled into Breitbart-style propaganda machines, pushing the President’s messaging.

Now, there are some who have claimed that the radio operations, like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, have always been forms of American propaganda. On the whole that’s an inaccurate portrayal. They have built up a pretty strong reputation over the years of being useful, independent news agencies, and it’s a shame that their reputation is likely to be smashed because our President and his allies are so insecure they feel the best way to accomplish their goals is to control everything and push lies and propaganda.

But, even more concerning is that the fallout from this could have a tremendous impact on the open web and encryption technologies. That’s because while much of the focus is on the various media parts of USAGM, we should be much, much, much more concerned about what is perhaps the less well known part: the Open Technology Fund. Open Technology Fund has been the (not “a” but “the”) main funder of key elements of the open internet over the past decade. Originally a subset of Radio Free Asia, it was set up to help fund the development of internet technologies that would help activists and dissidents route around censorship and government surveillance. It has helped fund part of the Tor Project. It’s funded Simply Secure, which helps a variety of different projects targeting vulnerable populations ensure their efforts are designed with safety and privacy in mind. It’s also helped fund important security audits of basically every key piece of technology that protects the internet from unwanted intrusions and surveillance.

In short, keeping OTF doing what’s it’s doing is hugely important. And that’s why it’s extremely worrying that OTF’s CEO, Libby Liu, was pushed out as part of this purge, in part because of the new direction Pack is pushing OTF to move in:

“As you all know, OTF’s flexible, transparent, and competitive funding model has been essential to our success in supporting the most secure and effective internet freedom technologies and innovative projects available,” she wrote. “I have become aware of lobbying efforts to convince the new USAGM [U.S. Agency for Global Media] CEO to interfere with the current FY2020 OTF funding stream and redirect some of our resources to a few closed-source circumvention tools.

A group of very concerned folks have now set up a page at SaveInternetFreedom.tech, with a sign-on letter for Congress, asking it to continue to back the Open Technology Fund to continue to do its important work supporting open technologies that enable people to communicate online safely.

Despite OTF’s important work, there are serious concerns that the new leadership within the USAGM will seek to dismantle OTF and re-allocate all of its US government funding to support a narrow set of anti-censorship tools without a transparent and open review process. Moreover, these technologies are closed-source, limiting the number of people around the world who are able to access them and making the tools less secure, thus jeopardizing the safety of users and the global public’s trust in US-supported internet freedom technologies. Such an approach also fails to recognize the numerous threats to internet freedom and the much larger set of actions that are required to help those being targeted by repressive governments.

Around the world, intrepid journalists and dedicated activists are taking great personal risks to further freedom and democracy. OTF’s open, fair, competitive, and evidence-based award process ensures that those brave individuals have the best tools and technologies available to protect themselves. OTF funds open-source technologies and has funded over 100, independent, third-party security audits of internet freedom technologies to ensure only those with the highest security standards are supported with US-government funds.

Authoritarian regimes have made it clear that they are willing to do whatever it takes to control the internet. It is crucial that the US safeguards the internet as a democratic space for free expression. We urge Congress to respond to these escalating attacks on freedom of speech by protecting the internet through its continued and strong bipartisan support for OTF.

The changes regarding the various US broadcasting components is concerning enough, but most people hopefully can see those for what they are. The threat to an open, private, and secure internet, on the other hand, could have devastating consequences.

Techdirt.