Countering Digital Authoritarianism Will Require Support from Governments and Philanthropists
Global Internet freedom has declined for the 12th year in a row, according to the latest report from Freedom House. Russia has increased its crackdown on Internet freedom since the start of the war in Ukraine, while the Chinese Communist Party remains the world leader in digital authoritarianism, mandating “new rules that require platforms to use their algorithmic systems to promote CCP ideology.” The CCP’s Social Credit System fuses online data with offline behavior to gauge the trustworthiness of individual citizens, as part of a larger campaign to consolidate power and silence dissenters on- and offline. In 2021, the Chinese government even prohibited the sharing of religious information online by foreign organizations and people.
These alarming but unsurprising findings underscore the importance of the United States’ ongoing efforts to promote Internet freedom and counter digital authoritarianism around the world. Congress’s recent actions to increase funding for the Open Technology Fund (OTF), one of the most important organizations in this fight, are an important step in the right direction. But responding to this threat will require further efforts from both the public and private sectors.
As Dan Lips and I wrote in our report last year, OTF, a nonprofit organization funded by the State Department’s U.S. Agency for Global Media, has advanced the nation’s longstanding bipartisan goal of promoting Internet freedom and countering digital authoritarianism by supporting the development of open source technology. Its accomplishments include:
- Supporting the development of secure messaging apps that have been used by human rights activists and journalists to communicate safely and securely;
- Funding the creation of anti-censorship tools that help people in repressive regimes access information and connect with the outside world; and
- Investing in research to understand how authoritarian governments are using technology to control their citizens, and developing strategies to counter these efforts.
Recent developments on Capitol Hill show a growing bipartisan recognition of the importance of OTF and its broader mission. Congress provided $40 million in funding for OTF in the FY2023 Omnibus, which represents a nearly 50 percent increase over the prior fiscal year’s funding. During the 118th Congress, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez and Senator Marsha Blackburn introduced the Internet Freedom and Operations Act, which would have increased authorization levels for OTF to $49 million and required the State Department and USAID to provide additional grants to support internet freedom projects around the world. These efforts attest to a growing awareness of the role that organizations like OTF play in promoting free access to information globally.
The federal government is not the only institution that can support efforts to fight digital authoritarianism, however. In the past, philanthropy and tech companies have stepped up to support organizations similar to OTF in times of resource constraints and emergencies. Following the 2018 revelations of the Meltdown and Spectre security vulnerabilities, several tech companies pledged donations to improve these critical open source programs used by millions. Similarly, in 2014, the Linux Foundation started the Core Infrastructure Initiative to identify and fund open source projects. Donations to the project from tech giants helped secure our computing infrastructure, and set an example for other countries and companies of how to coordinate responses to major security threats. OTF is well positioned to organize such efforts, given its experience in responding rapidly to emergencies.
In its latest effort, OTF is launching the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Sustainability Fund:
OTF is pleased to be launching the FOSS Fund with support from Schmidt Futures’ Plaintext Group, Omidyar Network, Okta, and GitHub. We are proud to be launching this fund with other organizations that value open source technologies and invest in the security and sustainability of these tools. In addition to expanding support for these critical technologies, these contributions also help to match OTF’s Congressional funding with non-federal resources and deliver on OTF’s mandate to maximize cooperation between public and private sectors.
The FOSS Fund will dedicate resources exclusively to long-term maintenance and sustainability of open source software projects, an area that is often neglected by funders. This funding will allow the FOSS Fund to provide resources to upgrade software that a project depends on or maintain the infrastructure that a project requires to grow.
In its recent national security strategy, the White House wisely emphasized the importance of countering digital authoritarianism and engaging with the private sector, philanthropies, and civil society. Policymakers and philanthropists alike should heed its message. As the necessity of protecting Internet freedom around the world becomes increasingly clear, supporting the work of OTF and its FOSS Fund offers an opportunity to address this critical issue.