The Open Technology Fund (OTF) was created in 2012 to address the problems created by increasing levels of online Internet censorship and surveillance globally. Since then, OTF has supported the growth of the Internet freedom community to become a diverse, robust network creating technologies that serve billions of users worldwide.
About a decade ago, the United States Congress recognized Radio Free Asia (RFA) and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) as an appropriate engine to empower citizens worldwide to use the Internet as a safe and secure platform for free speech. To this end, the Open Technology Fund (OTF) was created in 2012 as a program of Radio Free Asia. Broadcasting over the radio and then the Internet throughout China, including in Xinjiang and Tibet, RFA knew well both the challenges and importance of providing independent media content in censored environments. It was out of this context that OTF was born.
OTF initially operated as a program of RFA. In 2019, after seven years of operating as a program within RFA, OTF restructured itself from a program within RFA to an independent, non-profit organization.
Over the past seven years, OTF has supported the growth of the Internet freedom community to become a diverse, robust network working to create technologies that serve billions worldwide. OTF’s restructuring, born out of recognition of the growth and success we’ve experienced to date, will enable the USAGM to further build upon these successes to support Internet freedom in new ways and see the community continue to mature.
As an independent organization, OTF now has its own Board of Directors, which includes experts in the field of technology and internet freedom.
In terms of funding, OTF is still sustained by annual grants from the USAGM, and our funding still originates from yearly U.S. Congressional appropriations for State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, as has been the case since our founding.
In 2017, the U.S. Congress updated the Internet freedom appropriations language for the BBG. FY2017’s BBG Internet freedom funds were given the following scope:
(A) made available only for tools and techniques to securely develop and distribute BBG digital content; facilitate audience access to such content on Web sites that are censored; coordinate the distribution of BBG digital content to targeted regional audiences; and to promote and distribute such tools and techniques, including digital security techniques; [emphasis added]
(B) coordinated with programs funded by this Act under the heading ‘‘International Broadcasting Operations’’, and shall be incorporated into country broadcasting strategies, as appropriate;
(C) coordinated by the BBG CEO to provide Internet circumvention tools and techniques for audiences in countries that are strategic priorities for the BBG and in a manner consistent with the BBG Internet freedom strategy;
(D) made available for the research and development of new tools or techniques authorized in paragraph (A) only after the BBG CEO, in consultation with the Secretary of State and other relevant United States Government departments and agencies, evaluates the risks and benefits of such new tools or techniques, and establishes safeguards to minimize the use of such new tools or techniques for illicit purposes.
More about the updated Internet freedom language found in the FY2017 Omnibus Appropriations bill can be found in this blog post.
In 2014, Congress modified the Internet freedom appropriation language to include:
That funds made available pursuant to this section shall be matched, to the maximum extent practicable, by sources other than the United States Government, including from the private sector.
In response, OTF increased the sharing and exporting of our program’s best practices, procedures, systems, and determinations to facilitate easier matching of public funds with other sources of funding. For many public and private donors, OTF is a learning platform, a front-line vehicle they can look inside of for supporting technology-centric Internet freedom and human rights efforts. Other donors have decided that OTF’s model is the right one for them and have chosen to partner more closely, share our mission, values &principles, and make use of the same application system. With OTF as an open and available resource, the risk for established donors to engage into a new area of support is reduced, increasing their entry, and increasing the available pool of funds to match public funds against. Most importantly, the field of Internet freedom defenders gains access to greater resources.