Localization Lab

Surge and Sustain Fund

The Surge and Sustain Fund supports user costs for open-source VPN and circumvention solutions serving users in highly restrictive censorship environments.

Not Accepting Applications

About the Surge and Sustain Fund

As internet censorship continues to escalate globally, more users than ever are relying on circumvention technologies to counter censorship and access the free and open internet. In response to this increasing demand, OTF established the Surge and Sustain Fund to provide leading circumvention tools with the resources they need to sustain their current users and respond to growing demand for their tools.

In many authoritarian countries, it is cost-prohibitive for citizens to access secure, trustworthy and effective circumvention tools. The Surge and Sustain Fund supports user-carrying costs for non-monetizable users of secure, open-source circumvention tools to ensure that people living in repressive environments have access to these critical anti-censorship technologies.

Application Process and Award Information

Applications to the Fund go through a two-stage application process.

OTF funding awards are performance-based contracts signed directly with the applicant or applicants. Payment will be dispersed on a monthly basis at an agreed upon rate per user and will be based on the actual number of monthly active users, subject to ceiling thresholds as determined by OTF. All payments are made in U.S. dollars and will comply with local laws, regulations, and ethics rules.

Successful applicants are paired with an OTF program manager who will oversee all project monitoring and evaluation for the duration of the contract. Monitoring and evaluation assessments are based on predetermined and agreed-upon metrics, deliverables, and goals as laid out by the applicant in the project proposal.

The Surge and Sustain Fund will not cover any development efforts (please direct all development applications to the Internet Freedom Fund), but instead covers only the additional marginal costs associated with providing circumvention services to demonstrably served monthly active users (MAUs) in the target countries (currently China, Russia, Iran, and Myanmar).

Eligibility

Individuals or organizations (for-profit or nonprofit) of all ages irrespective of nationality, creed, or sex are eligible to apply.  Individuals must be age 18 or older to be eligible to receive funding.

OTF is not able to support applicants within countries that the United States has trade restrictions or export sanctions as determined by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Additionally, OTF is not able to support applicants who are currently debarred, suspended, or otherwise not eligible to receive funding from the United States Government.

Small businesses, minority-owned organizations, and/or women-owned business enterprises are encouraged to apply. 

How to Apply

Applications to the Surge and Sustain Fund go through a two-stage application process.

Stage 1: Submit a concept note that provides an overview of the tool, including the resilience of the VPN provider’s technical solution and adherence to a number of qualifying conditions (see below). Apply through OTF’s online application system (the form will be available when we are accepting applications).

Stage 2: Applicants whose concept notes are deemed to be highly competitive will be invited to submit a full proposal focused on providing more detail on their tool and the distinguishing features of their technical solution, its ability to demonstrably support a large user base in highly repressive contexts, and the technical solution’s cost model.

Pricing should focus only on costs related to bandwidth and infrastructure needs to support users in the specified countries. All quoted prices should be in US Dollars.

The Surge and Sustain Fund Advisory Council, comprising experts in the VPN and internet Freedom space, will conduct a final review of competitive proposals (see members below).

Qualifying Conditions:

OTF holds all circumvention providers we work with to industry standards with regards to protecting the security and privacy of their user base. This consideration is critical given that the funding is focused on users in authoritarian or high-risk contexts. As such, we expect all applicants to this fund to meet the following qualifying conditions:

  • Open-source solution: OTF requires solutions be open source in order to build trust, foster developer collaboration, and maintain our principles commitment to transparency. Specific licenses and open-sourcing practices can be discussed during the application process.
  • Security audits: All supported providers are expected to undergo regular security audits and provide a report of their most recent security audit.
  • Ownership information: OTF expects circumvention partners to adhere to the industry’s best transparency standards, including ownership.
  • Privacy policy: Circumvention providers are expected to submit their privacy policies.

In addition, providers must validate their marginal infrastructure and bandwidth costs per monthly active user with documented actual costs. OTF may also inquire about other aspects of the tools as needed.

 

Application Review Process
This solicitation for Concept Notes will remain open until January 17th, 2024. The fund will re-open for the next annual cycle in late 2024. If you are interested in the fund and want to learn more about it, you can reach out to [email protected].

 

Schedule of Activities:
December 6, 2023: RFP application opens
January 17, 2024: Initial phase Concept Note submission due
January 18, 2024: Initial phase Concept Note Review Period begins
April 1, 2024: Anticipated start date of Contracts for successful initial phase applicants.

 

Evaluation Criteria:

  • Effectiveness: Demonstrated resilience of proposed technical solution as well as quality of service and demonstrated user base in the target countries of China, Russia, Iran, or Myanmar
  • Sustainability: Demonstrated ability to sustain a growing user base
  • Cost-Effective: Reasonable and justified budget with validated user-carrying costs and demonstrated cost-saving measures
  • Collaboration: Engagement in efforts that positively impact the circumvention/internet freedom community
  • Privacy & Security: Demonstrated measures taken to ensure the privacy and security of users
  • Non-Duplicative: Complementary to existing efforts
  • Usability: User experience considered in design & user experience improvement plans

Please direct any questions to [email protected].

Advisory Council:

The Surge and Sustain Fund Advisory Council members are:

  • Amir Houmansadr – Associate Professor, University of Massachusetts
  • Chad Hurley – Director, Office of Internet Freedom at USAGM
  • David Huerta – Senior Digital Security Trainer, Freedom of the Press Foundation
  • Rodrigue Hajjar – VP of Engineering, Cohere
  • Roya Ensafi – Professor, University of Michigan

Sample Surge and Sustain Fund projects:

Funding:

The Surge and Sustain Fund is managed by the Open Technology Fund and supported with resources from the U.S. Congress via the U.S. Agency for Global Media as well as from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and from the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, including $13.2 million for this solicitation.

Other Provisions:

OTF reserves the right to accept or reject any or all bids, to take exceptions to the specifications of this funding solicitation, and to waive any requirements stated herein.

OTF reserves the right to make an award based solely on the proposals or to negotiate with one or more providers. Issuance of this funding solicitation, preparation, submission, and evaluation of bidder responses does not commit OTF to award a contract to any vendor. 

 OTF reserves the right to cancel or modify this solicitation at any time for any reason within its sole discretion without liability.

 OTF, in its sole discretion, will make the final determination as to the acceptability of all work products due hereunder.

 The awarded contract, if any, will be based on OTF’s standard contract terms, including a termination for convenience provision, and will also include the relevant U.S. Government provisions found in 2 CFR 200 Appendix II and available upon request.

Alternative Sources of Support

Our Alternative Sources of Support contains funding sources which support efforts relevant to the fields of Internet freedom, software development, journalism, and human rights. Sources are organized by general subject matter. We’re always seeking to grow this resource and make it as useful and inclusive as possible, so if you know of a funding source that should be on here, please let us know by contacting us at [email protected].