Testimony of Dan Lips to the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs

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Chairwoman Lee, Ranking Member Rogers, and Members of the Subcommittee:

My name is Dan Lips. I am head of policy at Lincoln Network. I am writing to encourage the Subcommittee to provide additional funding to the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), specifically to provide funding for its nonprofit grantee, the Open Technology Fund.

In March, Congress passed an Omnibus appropriations bill that appropriated at least $27 million for the USAGM’s internet freedom programs for FY2022.[1] In its FY2023 budget request, the Biden administration proposed $840 million for USAGM, which would be a $37 million increase for the agency.[2] In the FY2023 funding bill, the subcommittee should focus additional resources provided to USAGM on countering digital authoritarianism, specifically requiring not less than $50 million shall be spent on promoting internet freedom.

Background

Authoritarian governments, including Russia and the People’s Republic of China, use information technology to repress, surveil, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations. It is more important than ever for the United States to present an affirmative vision of the digital world.

Promoting Internet freedom has been a longstanding bipartisan national security priority. For example, President Joe Biden’s “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance” committed to working with allies and other partners to counter digital authoritarianism and other emerging threats.[3] President Trump’s 2017 national security strategy stated that the United States “will advocate for open, interoperable communications, with minimal barriers to the global exchange of information and services.”[4]

The U.S. government’s current commitment to promoting internet freedom is an extension of an earlier bipartisan policy. Since World War II, the United States has sought to provide free and open access to information for people living in authoritarian societies through diplomacy and international broadcasting, and by supporting activities through the National Endowment for Democracy, Broadcasting Board of Governors, and other means. These activities played a meaningful role advancing liberty during the Cold War. In the 21st century, countering digital authoritarianism requires promoting a free, open, and secure internet. However, a review of current government funding and activities aimed at countering digital authoritarianism shows that exceedingly limited resources are being invested in developing new tools to ensure global internet freedom and security

The Open Technology Fund’s Impact Promoting Internet Freedom

Created in 2012, the Open Technology Fund has been at the forefront of recent US efforts to promote global internet freedom. USAGM provides grants to the Open Technology Fund (OTF), a non-profit organization “committed to advancing global internet freedom” by “developing tools and technology to bolster internet freedom and counter attempts by authoritarian governments to censor the internet and restrict freedom online.”[5] The State Department reports that OTF’s budget was just $20 million in FY2021. Between 2012 and 2020, the Open Technology Fund received approximately $90 million in government funding.

Despite these relatively modest expenditures over the past decade, OTF has had an outsized impact promoting internet freedom around the world. OTF-incubated technologies are currently used in services and applications serving over 2 billion people, including providing technologies to counter digital authoritarianism in China, Cuba, Iran, Russia, and many other countries. Importantly, OTF projects fund open-source technologies, enabling independent auditing and review of every code base. In several prominent instances, commercial technologies or services have adopted or implemented OTF-supported technologies, given that they are “best in class” security applications. This public-private synergy underscores OTF’s growing positive impacts – not just in supporting human rights, but in fostering private sector innovation as well. Many of the projects funded by OTF later receive financial support from private partners.

One prominent example is Signal, a secure messaging and communications application widely used to protect communications against digital surveillance. Since 2012, OTF has provided $3 million to Open Whisper Systems (OWS).[6] This funding supported the development of an encryption protocol that enabled Signal-based platforms to provide secure communications. Signal’s downloads show that users are increasingly using its service during protests, such as during the People’s Republic of China’s crackdown in Hong Kong.[7] In 2022, Signal’s usage dramatically increased in Ukraine during the ongoing Russian invasion, presumably due to the urgent need for secure communications.[8]

OTF’s grants to Open Whisper Systems provided necessary support to develop and launch Signal and its underlying encryption protocol. According to Wired, OWS had been able to pay only “a handful of full-time staffers, who have worked out of a single room in a co-working space” until 2018.[9] That year, the organization received a $50 million private donation. Absent OTF’s early support, Open Whisper Systems would never have been able to develop its technologies to the point where additional interests found the technology compelling enough for investment.

The Open Technology Fund has also funded TOR’s Onion Services, which helps internet users circumvent surveillance and censorship, including a project to support the development of an open source, secure browser for iOS. The BBC recently issued guidance to its audience in Ukraine and Russia to use TOR to circumvent Russian censorship. OTF has provided more than $3 million to support TOR projects over the past decade.

But the Open Technology Fund could have had a much greater impact had it received more funding over the past decade. The organization reports receiving more than 3,500 requests for support totaling $450 million since 2012.[10] This means that OTF has only been able to fund about one quarter of its funding requests to promote freedom enhancing technology.

In the future, OTF may shift resources to address other technological challenges and opportunities to make the internet more secure and accessible. Over the past decade, many of OTF’s funded projects have focused on developing software applications to help users evade censorship or surveillance. However, future OTF-funded projects could focus on an open-source technical communications infrastructure that does not require evasion applications. Likewise, as internet based communications continue to expand, documentation and how-to guides for non-literate users (e.g., audio and video how-tos or illustrated guides) will grow substantially.

Recommendation

With a relatively small budget over the past decade, OTF has funded the development of technologies that have greatly improved internet freedom and security for people around the world. OTF is leading the United States’ effort to counter digital authoritarianism.

In its FY2023 budget request, the Biden administration proposed $840 million for USAGM, which would be a $37 million increase for the agency.[11] In the FY2023 appropriations bill, the subcommittee should focus additional resources provided to USAGM on countering digital authoritarianism, specifically requiring that not less than $50 million shall be spent on promoting internet freedom.

Providing additional appropriations to the USAGM for internet freedom programs to fund the Open Technology Fund would advance the United States’ longstanding, bipartisan goal of promoting global internet freedom and counter the rising threat of digital authoritarianism around the world.


[1] Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2022, Pub. L. 117-103 (2022).

[2] Department of State, Congressional Budget Justification Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Fiscal Year 2023 (2022), p. 68.

[3] President Joseph R. Biden Jr., The White House, Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (2021), https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NSC-1v2.pdf.

[4] President Donald J. Trump, The White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America (2017),   https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf.

[5] “About,” Open Technology Fund, accessed on May 27, 2022, https://www.opentech.fund/about/.

[6] “Signal (Open Whisper Systems)”, Open Technology Fund,  https://www.opentech.fund/results/supported-projects/open-whisper-systems/, accessed on May 27, 2022.

[7] Billy Perrigo, “The Inside Story of How Signal Became the Private Messaging App for an Age of Fear and Distrust,” Time, September 28, 2020.

[8] Darab Ali, “War In Ukraine: Ukranians Use Signal App Amid Crisis; Founder Urges People To Avoid Telegram,” News18, February 26, 2022.

[9] Andy Greenberg, “WhatsApp Co-Founder Puts $50M Into Signal To Supercharge Encrypted Messaging,” Wired, February 21, 2018.

[10] “Impacts and Outcomes,” Open Technology Fund, https://www.opentech.fund/results/impacts-and-outcomes/, accessed on May 27, 2022.

[11] Department of State, Congressional Budget Justification Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Fiscal Year 2023, op. cit.

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Dan Lips
Head of Policy
Zach Graves
Executive Director
Grace Meyer
Chief Operating Officer
Marshall Kosloff
Media Fellow
Luke Hogg
Policy Manager
Deepesh Chaudhari
Senior Fellow