USAGM Funds Two Internet Freedom Projects

The U.S. Agency for Global Media announced Tuesday that it is moving forward with funding two internet firewall circumvention projects despite an ongoing legal battle over the agency’s broader internet freedom strategy. The awardees — Psiphon and ACI — write software that help people gain access to websites and information blocked by their governments.  “Our agency is determined to expand freedom of expression by continuing to explore, develop, and fund the most secure and effective internet freedom tools,” FILE – Michael Pack, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media, is seen at his confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Sept. 19, 2019. Pack’s nomination was confirmed June 4, 2020.The announcement comes as USAGM, which is also the parent agency of Voice of America, remains locked in a legal battle with the Open Technology Fund (OTF), a Washington-based organization that receives a grant from USAGM to fund internet freedom technologies worldwide. Founded in 2012 as a pilot program under Radio Free Asia, another media organization under USAGM, OTF was spun out into a nonprofit organization in the fall of 2019. After Pack assumed office in June, he moved to fire OTF’s board and executives and install new leadership. A federal appeals court blocked that move in July. USAGM has withheld funding to OTF, leading the organization to halt 49 of its 60 internet freedom projects.US Global Internet Freedom Group Says Work Limited by Funding Dispute Open Technology Fund says global media chief is blocking access to $20 million for programs aimed at evading censorship in China, Iran, other authoritarian countriesEarlier this month, a group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers asked the Trump administration to release $20 million in congressionally approved funds for OTF. Psiphon, based in Toronto, creates software that “helps over 3 million people every week connect to content on the Internet,” according to its website. ACI, also known as Advanced Circuiting Inc., is the creator of NthLink, an “anti-censorship mobile application capable of circumventing Internet censorship and self-recovering from blocking events,” according to material on its website.  Both Psiphon and ACI have received funding through OTF over the past few years. A May OTF monthly report called the companies “veteran circumvention tool providers.” Details of the new awards were unavailable. 
USAGM did not respond to a request for comment by deadline. Lawyers representing Open Technology Fund board members also did not respond to questions about the awards.  In its announcement Tuesday, USAGM also said it was reviving the Office of Internet Freedom (OIF), which was created in 2016 but had ceased operations. It is through the OIF that the grants to Psiphon and ACI were made. OIF will soon launch “another round of competitive bidding to fund additional internet freedom technology,” according to the USAGM press release. Pack said that reviving the Office of Internet Freedom will help allow people worldwide to gain access to information. “Blocking access to information is a horrible thing. But fostering access to information, especially in this advanced capacity, will prove a blow for liberty,” Pack said in a statement. “That’s why we’re funding a range of internet firewall circumvention tools. Bringing back OIF will further allow our agency to make significant strides in this area.” 

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