Topic: The Perils of three-letter orgs: the Open Technology Fund (OTF)
There is strong evidence, however, to suggest that the Open Technology Fund is not what it claims to be: that it is neither independent nor truly committed to online freedom and privacy. First, while technically a private company, it is directly funded and controlled by the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM), a government body responsible for overseeing U.S.-funded state media outlets overseas, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America and Radio and Televisión Martí. The OTF derives essentially all of its funding from USAGM, which, in turn, receives money from Congress through the Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related programs ($808 million in 2019).
Secondly, until 2019, the OTF was officially a government project managed by the infamous Radio Free Asia. Together, The New York Times described these outlets as a “worldwide propaganda network built by the CIA.” Even a brief look at their content suggests that this is essentially an accurate description, with USAGM brought into existence to manage CIA-created media outlets.
This alone would be enough to raise questions. However, the OTF’s definition of freedom should sound even more alarm bells. In its most recently published annual report, it describes its mission as:
…Advanc[ing] internet freedom in repressive environments by supporting the research, development, implementation, and maintenance of technologies that provide secure and uncensored access to USAGM content as well as the broader internet. This critical support helps to counter attempts by authoritarian governments to restrict freedom online.
Internet freedom, according to the OTF, is explicitly defined in relation to access to U.S. state propaganda arms. If individuals in a country have access to Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, then their internet is free. If not, they live in a totalitarian state. Internet freedom boils down to the freedom of the U.S. government to reach you. Any other understanding of the concept is, at best, an afterthought.
That this operation is pointed specifically at U.S. enemies is made clear on the fund’s website, which states that “leading censors like China and Russia” are “exporting their censorship and surveillance tactics to like-minded regimes abroad,” and that the OTF must “capitalize on its unique capability within the U.S. government to support internet freedom efforts,” thereby positioning Washington as the unquestioned defender of liberty around the world.
Thus the OTF – a “private” company that was created by government agencies and was a government body itself until 2019 – is staffed by top U.S. officials who have been chosen by the USAGM. The veneer of independence actually serves two important purposes: it provides the U.S. government a modicum of plausible deniability if any misdeeds are exposed and ensures that the organization is not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, making the OTF far harder to scrutinize.
This semi-privatization technique is a new trend in U.S. statecraft. In recent years, the government has farmed out much of its most controversial clandestine work to NGOs and shadowy “private” companies that rely largely or solely on federal contracts. For example, NGOs like Creative Associates International have been employed to organize regime-change ops in Cuba or act as a front group for the CIA in Pakistan. Last year, a private American security firm was also responsible for a failed coup attempt in Venezuela.
Please read the above quote in full, it is very important to software libre. In other words there is no surprise that Signal, which is an OTF (aka, CIA) funded entity, eventually became (partially) proprietary. The OTF (and also the NED - National Endowment for Democracy) wanted to use Signal to facilitate not people's freedom, but to practice interventionism in foreign countries' affairs. This might explain why, despite receiving funding, the projects failed to give privacy to all users (it ever intended to). How many years did users wait to get a simple feature of not requiring a phone number? Meanwhile, much eye candy was added. It is well polished but does not have the things that guarantee identity privacy for most users. It never intended to serve the needs of the people. Similar things can be said about the incredibly flawed design of Tor - polished, yet limited by design in terms of practicality, everyday use, accessibility. Technological empancipation is not the goal, yet I think many were misled as to throw support behind these projects, to believe that the funding source didn't matter and that the outcomes were good. The sad reality is those of us who were deceived were supporting something that carried the same 'eee' (embrace, extend, extinguish) agenda that would undermine us.
Software libre should reject CIA funding, but this requires us to be aware of and not take at face value organizations that pretend to be "independent" or even fighting for a 'good' cause. Knowing where their funds come from, who staffs the organizations, and how they influence geopolitics, is critical. Their idea of "freedom" and "democracy" may not be the same as ours.