Lawsuit & Bi-Partisan Group Of Senators Seek To Push Back On Trump Administration's Attempt To Corrupt The Open Technology Fund

from the do-something-good-marco dept

Last month we wrote about how the newly appointed head of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) had cleaned house, getting rid of the heads of the various organizations under the USAGM umbrella. That included Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting... and the Open Technology Fund. The general story making the rounds is that Pack, a Steve Bannon acolyte, planned to turn the famously independent media operations into a propaganda arm for the Trump administration. Leaving side the concerns about why this is so dangerous and problematic on the media side, we focused mostly on the one "different" organization under the USAGM banner: the Open Technology Fund.

OTF is incredibly important to a functioning and open internet -- especially one where freedom and privacy to communicate can work around the globe, with a focus on funding audited, open source technologies. Last week, Vice had a detailed story about what it describes as "the plot to kill the Open Technology Fund." In it, it notes that Pack wants OTF to fund two apps that are not open source, Freegate and Ultrasurf. While both claim to be about helping circumvent internet censorship, most activists don't trust those apps. Indeed, it notes that the developer behind Ultrasurf agreed to a security audit by the US government, but then threatened the company who did the audit with legal action if it made the report public:

VICE News has learned that Ultrasurf recently underwent a security audit to assess if the app contained any critical security flaws. The audit was conducted at the request of the State Department as a condition of funding, but the report has not been published.

This was because the developer of Ultrasurf wanted a reference to “a high-severity bug” removed from the report, according to a source at the company that conducted the audit, Cure53.

The developer, who uses the pseudonym Clint to protect his family in China, subsequently threatened Cure53 with legal action if they ever published the report. Clint told VICE News the audit was “sort of like a trap” and that the report was not made public because it would reveal too much about his source code.

Let's be clear: if publishing a security audit about your software will reveal too much about your source code your app is not secure.

So why would OTF under Pack's command suddenly be interested in funding these closed source, highly questionable apps? You guessed it:

Mainly because prominent individuals with strong links to Pack have spent the better part of the last decade repeatedly pushing these apps to receive tens of millions of dollars in funding from the U.S. government, without providing any evidence that the technology will succeed.

The two loudest proponents of these technologies are Michael Horowitz, a former director of the Project for International Religious Liberty at the Hudson Institute, and Katrina Lantos Swett, the president of the Lantos Foundation Human Rights and Justice.

The former heads of OTF told Vice that they received a threatening call from Swett basically saying that if OTF didn't fund these questionable apps, she would lean on Pack to retaliate against OTF:

In March, around the time Trump decided to pressure Republicans in the Senate to confirm Pack’s appointment, Libby Liu, OTF’s CEO, and Laura Cunningham, OTF’s president, got a phone call from Swett and her colleagues to discuss funding for large-scale circumvention tools to help people in China bypass the Great Firewall.

Swett described it as “a very professional and a very cordial call,” but that’s not how Liu and Cunningham remember it.

“It was quite threatening,” Cunningham told VICE News. “They said that they were very close with Michael Pack [and] told us that there was a lot of disappointment that we were not funding the most effective circumvention tools out there. Their advice was that if we wanted to make sure we stayed in CEO Pack’s good graces, that we needed to reorient our funds immediately to support those technologies.”

Liu says Swett and her colleagues “lectured us, you know, round robin-style, and threatened us.”

Vice also shows Horowitz showing up on Steve Bannon's radio show last month directly saying that Libby Liu should be fired (though he mistakenly claims she's part of Radio Free Asia, which used to house OTF, but OTF has been spun out separately from RFA for a while now):

In that video, you see Bannon ask Horowitz to repeat the name of who he wanted fired, and apparently write down Liu's name while saying "okay." Days later, Liu and Cunningham were both fired by Pack (incredibly, Liu had already resigned, but Pack doubled down and fired her anyway).

In response, OTF itself and the board members of many of the USAGM organizations have now sued Michael Pack, arguing that he has no right to fire people:

Although funded by Congress through grants administered by the Agency, the four organizations targeted by Mr. Pack are not part of the government. Their employees are not government employees. They are private, nonprofit organizations with their own leadership and independent boards of directors. That is by design. Their mission, collectively, is to promote the free flow of information worldwide, especially in countries where authorities restrict freedom of expression. They do this through global efforts to combat online censorship and news broadcasts in 61 different languages, reaching 400 million people each day. But they can only be effective in countering disinformation and censorship if they are rightly perceived as independent, professional, and fact-driven—not as official mouthpieces for some partisan agenda. To ensure the integrity and credibility of this vital work, their independence from political interference is protected by a strict “firewall” embodied in statutes, regulations, and binding contract provisions. Mr. Pack’s actions this past week constitute the most egregious breach of that firewall in history.

[....]

Mr. Pack’s actions are unlawful in at least two critical respects. First, with respect to Open Technology Fund—an independent nonprofit dedicated to advancing global Internet freedom— Packlacks any legal authority whatsoever to remove its officers or directors. The statutory authority and bylaws on which Mr. Pack purported to rely do not remotely confer any such authority.Second, although Pack does have limited statutory authority with respect to personnel decisions at the other three organizations, that authority is strictly constrained by statute, regulation, and contract. With respect to all four organizations—Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and Open Technology Fund—Mr. Pack’s attempt to remove the organizations’ officers and directors across the board constitutes an impermissible breach of the “firewall.” So does his attempt to freeze funds. Indeed, in each of its grant agreements with these organizations, the Agency has pledged to honor these statutory and regulatory obligations and is prohibited from “tak[ing] any . . . action that may tend to undermine” the organizations’ “journalistic credibility or independence.”Mr. Pack’s actions impermissibly breach the “firewall.” It is hard to conceive of a more serious breach of the organizations’ legally protected independence than the wholesale decapitation of their leadership by an ideologically-oriented maker of political films, installed by the President for the stated purpose of altering the organizations’ content.

On top of that, it seems that these moves by Pack to clean house have at least raised surprisingly bi-partisan concerns in Congress. A group of Senators led by Marco Rubio have sent a letter to Pack demanding an explanation and making it clear that USAGM is supposed to be independent of politics.

As the United States faces global challenges in the information space, it cannot afford to invest in an enterprise that denigrates its own journalists and staff to the satisfaction of dictators and despots, nor can it be one that fails to live up to its promise of providing access to a free and independent press. Congress set up these networks, and its governance structure at USAGM, to preserve the grantees’ independence so they can act as a bulwark against disinformation through credible journalism.

We urge you to respect the unique independence that enables USAGM’s agencies and grantees to help cultivate a free and open world. Given the bipartisan and bicameral concern with recent events, we intend to do a thorough review of USAGM’s funding to ensure that United States international broadcasting is not politicized and the agency is able to fully and effectively carry out its core mission.

Beyond Rubio, the letter is signed by some fairly powerful Senators on both sides of the aisle: Dick Durbin, Lindsey Graham, Pat Leahy, Jerry Moran, Susan Collins and Chris Van Hollen. Will it convince Pack to back off? Who knows, but at least it's nice to see that in this one very important area, some Senators have the backbone to push back against what appears to be a very swampy, corrupt move by this administration.

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Filed Under: censorship, libby liu, marco rubio, michael pack, open source, open technology fund, usagm
Companies: open technology fund, radio free asia, radio free europe, voice of america


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Jul 2020 @ 7:57pm

    Re:

    And if precisely nothing changes about the situation

    The rest of the world is already ignoring the US in many respects so it doesn't matter if the situation changes. Just another act to add to the list. Right along with blatant encryption backdoors, hunting of whistle blowers, and monitoring of independent journalism. Why should anyone trust the US' word? I'd say it's shameful, but everyone else in the world knows that the US has no shame.


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