Trump appointee strips funding from vital media groups, puts global internet freedom at risk

Today Access Now joined more than 30 public interest and human rights organizations in a letter to the U.S. Congress that calls for continued support of the Open Technology Fund (OTF) and global internet freedom.

President Trump’s newly appointed head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) Michael Pack has dismissed the leadership and dissolved the boards of several highly regarded organizations working to defend media and internet freedom. OTF’s highly experienced and credible board had garnered wide bipartisan support, but it has been replaced with a panel of administration loyalists with no expertise and a track record of discrimination, including public activism against transgender people. These interventions threaten to quickly dissolve community trust in OTF and undermine its work to combat authoritarianism around the world.

In addition to undermining OTF’s leadership structure, Pack has frozen USAGM spending, and there are serious concerns the agency will reallocate all of OTF’s U.S. government funding to support a narrow set of anti-censorship tools without a transparent and open review process. Closed-source projects are antithetical to OTF’s mission, which advances open-source projects that enable anyone to access and review or contribute code. 

What is more, the resignation and subsequent ousting of the head of OTF, Libby Liu, comes alongside the dismissal of the leadership of other USAGM grantees: Middle East Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Top officials at Voice of America, also a USAGM grantee, have resigned as well. 

“We need immediate action from Congress to set this right,” said Jennifer Brody, Legislative Manager at Access Now. “Leaders in the House and Senate should work together to pass the Open Technology Fund Authorization Act and restore stability to this long-standing bipartisan organization that defends internet freedom worldwide.”

Now more than ever, especially amidst its own democratic backsliding, it is crucial that the U.S. safeguards the internet as an inclusive space for free expression. Authoritarian regimes around the world will stop at nothing to block dissent online, and OTF plays a critical role in empowering human rights activists and journalists with the opportunity to speak truth to power.

“As a grassroots funder ourselves, we are deeply concerned about the impact this move by the U.S. government will have on the global digital rights movement. Funding sources that do not impose a political agenda are essential to the work of civil society around the world fighting to strengthen democracy and uphold human rights for all,” said Billie Goodman, Grants Manager at Access Now. “The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a heavy burden on organizations and individuals that are already strained and under-resourced, and the loss of the resources OTF has so effectively stewarded would reverberate across our entire community.”