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April 2020 Monthly Report

In April, OTF continued reviewing and responding to the 129 concept notes submitted during the March 1 round for the Internet Freedom and Core Infrastructure Funds. Proposals that advanced in OTF’s inaugural Technology at Scale Fund solicitation were moved to advisory council review for feedback thanks to the help of representatives from each of the USAGM broadcast entities. The Technology at Scale Fund is OTF’s newest fund which will support mature internet freedom technologies that directly serve USAGM entities. Evaluation and selection of this year’s class for OTF’s Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) was also nearly completed. Throughout April improvements to the Internet Freedom Fund application were implemented in preparation to go live for the May 1 solicitation round.

Highlights and Challenges

  • On April 24, 2020, House Foreign Affairs Committee leadership introduced “The Open Technology Fund Authorization Act” which would establish the Open Technology Fund as an independent grantee of the US Agency for Global Media. Lead sponsors, Ranking Member McCaul and Chairman Engel, were joined by Rep. Malinowski ( D-NJ) and Rep. Curtis (R-UT) as original co-sponsors to the Bill.
  • OTF’s FY2018 Annual Report was published in April. The report highlights the projects funded by OTF with FY2018 funds, including over 32 innovative projects to combat censorship and repressive surveillance, 18 fellowships to support cutting-edge research and digital security interventions, 6 labs to improve the security, usability, resiliency and interoperability of key Internet freedom technologies, and 22 rapid response interventions to address digital emergencies.
  • Over the last month, OTF has been working with a usability expert to improve and simplify the OTF application process. The new application form streamlines the application process by eliminating and/or consolidating repetitive questions, providing a simplified budget template, and allowing for offline editing.
  • Finally, this OTF participated in a proposal review panel for the Internet Freedom Team at the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy Human Rights and Labor. OTF provided comments and scores as part of our effort to share expertise and ensure deduplication of funding across USG internet freedom funders.
  • OTF’s new Chief Financial Officer, Heidi Pilloud, joined the organization on April 20, 2020. The OTF Board of Directors unanimously appointed Heidi as the corporation’s Treasurer on April 29, 2020.
  • OTF successfully recruited William Schneider, a distinguished expert on related fields and focused on the threat that CCP-affiliated implementation of 5G infrastructure presents, to serve on the OTF Board of Directors. He was unanimously elected on May 7, 2020.
  • OTF extended the application deadlines for critical vacancies to accommodate COVID-related challenges to recruitment and hiring efforts. These open positions will close this week and OTF hopes to on-board critical team members in May.

Notable Programmatic Highlights

  • In order to increase the efficiency and security of funding operations, OTF has over the past two years built an open-source web-based application submission system (“OTF WebApp”) with the needs of the global internet freedom community in mind that can be freely utilized by other funding, philanthropic and charitable organizations. This month saw a significant mark of the system’s success as the Digital Freedom Fund and Rest.tech both began using the system to streamline their own submissions and review workflows. This reflects OTF’s commitment to a security-first, open-source ethos not only in what we fund but how we fund.
  • In response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, where multiple countries’ shelter-in-place measures have now resulted in journalists and other activists now working from home, several of OTF’s Digital Integrity Fellows have been working with their organizations to provide tailored guidance on how to work from home securely on top of their primary work with local organizations already in need of digital security assistance.
    • Neil Blazevic updated Access Now’s Google Suite security guidance based on emerging needs from Ugandan organizations whose staff are working from home: here and here.
    • Jorge Sierra has been hosting webinars for Mexican journalists to answer questions on digital security practices, and conducted a review of the Mexican Ministry of Health’s COVID contact tracing app, finding that despite minor unnecessary permissions requests from the app itself, it generally does not have major privacy or security risks.
    • Cristian Leon has been documenting the use of technologies to abuse rights during the COVID-19 outbreak in Latin America in collaboration with former OTF fellow Vivian Zuniga and Derechos Digitales.
  • April saw the kick-off of the new Dark Crystal project tackling the difficult challenge of creating a key management system designed for user-friendly security oriented applications. Dark Crystal is designed to be integrated into other projects, and focuses on distributed backups of sensitive data such as cryptographic keys, using a small group of trusted contacts. Journalists under threat in difficult operating environments constitute a key user group for such a solution. As part of the project Dark Crystal will work together with the developers of Briar, a security-oriented mobile messaging app to build two features in order to demonstrate our protocol.
  • Recent OTF project VeSinFiltro uncovered a new phishing campaign in Venezuela targeting healthcare workers aligned with Maduro’s political opposition. The phishing campaign, which redirected visitors to a site providing assistance to healthcare workers to a malicious dummy site which collected sensitive personal information, was facilitated by Venezuela’s largest ISP CANTV. Read more here.
  • In February 2020, with funding from OTF, Let’s Encrypt became the first certificate authority to perform domain control validation from multiple topologically distinct vantage points spread across the Internet. This is a critically-needed defense that helps protect the Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) from attacks from attacks that leverage vulnerabilities in the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) to obtain malicious, unauthorized, certificates for a victim’s domains. OTF recently began support for a second phase of the project to increase the performance and robustness of this important defense.
  • This month OONI, a leading network measurement tool, officially launched its new desktop app. In addition to network speed and performance tests, the desktop app measures blocking of websites and secure communication tools such as Whatsapp, Facebook messenger and Telegram. The app now also includes tests for popular circumvention tools such as Psiphon and Tor, which are common targets of blocking in some restricted environments.
  • The Deflect Labs - Information Sharing and Analysis Center project was launched, which uses machine learning to detect malicious traffic and help websites mitigate repressive denial of service attacks. With OTF support, Deflect Labs will improve the efficiency of the tool, and offer their prediction engine to a wider community of web hosting providers, improving network defenses for civil society organizations and independent media outlets.

Legal Report

During the month of April, OTF’s General Counsel and CFO have continued to audit and streamline compliance processes with the assistance of an outside Grants Management consultant. OTF also completed the onboarding process of the remaining transfer employees from RFA to OTF and one new hire, including state-mandated harassment and discrimination training and all other organizatonal and governmental compliance requirements.

In addition, pro bono outside counsel from Perkins Coie began work in earnest to evaluate and improve OTF’s internal and external privacy policies with deliverables expected later in May.

Despite COVID-related delays in IRS processing, OTF received its 501(c)3 status and is now a tax-exempt non-profit corporation in the District of Columbia.

Administration Report

On April 20, 2020, the OTF team previously working in the Radio Free Asia corporation became official employees of the OTF corporation. Corporate policies, Standard Operating Procedures, operational and programmatic workflow processes and inventory were finalized and implemented with the OTF employees on April 20, 2020.

Finance Report

This month, OTF obtained Congressional approval for the USAGM FY2020 Internet Freedom spend plan, and executed the OTF grant amendment for receipt of the Q3 drawdown. The new CFO has been busy reviewing historical accounting documentation in preparation for the financial certification and migration of OTF assets from RFA to the OTF Corporation in late June. The CFO, has also kicked off the process for obtaining quotes and demonstrations of potential new accounting software - including a mix of both open-source and proprietary options that may facilitate future integrations that further streamline processes with the OTF web app.

Outreach and Communications Report

Despite COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions and a current vacancy in the role to lead OTF’s outreach and communications operations, with the help of USAGM’s Office of Congressional Affairs, OTF was able to provide several briefings to key Congressional staff. OTF briefed HFAC staff on OTF’s funding model and mechanisms to inform the development of an OTF authorization. OTF also briefed HPSCI on OTF’s overall approach to supporting Internet freedom and current projects. In addition, OTF briefed SACFO on the FY2020 USAGM IF Spend Plan.

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