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Person named by Trump seeks to cut funding for global Internet access group

WASHINGTON – The Trump-appointed person who oversees the government‘s global media operations is set to shut down a federally-funded nonprofit that helps support internet access around the world, a move that could limit the ability of people in countries like Iran and China to tightly control Internet access. to circumvent these constraints, the documents show.

The person named, Michael Pack, the chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media seeks to prevent the nonprofit, the Open Technology Fund, from receiving federal funding for three years, in part due to ‘a dispute over whether the fund should support the work being done. by Falun Gong, the spiritual movement known to spread anti-China and pro-Trump disinformation.

His action, a month before President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. took office, would be difficult for the new administration to undo.

The nonprofit, which is funded by the World Media Agency, helps develop technology that enables more than 2 billion people in more than 60 countries to access the internet. It is known to help create tools like Signal, an encrypted messaging app, and Tor, a web browser that hides a user’s identity while connected to the Internet.

Fund officials have 30 days to appeal Mr Pack’s decision, according to the documents. Mr Pack, an ally of Stephen K. Banon, former adviser and strategist to President Trump, will oversee any appeal, legal experts have said. His final decision is due by Jan. 19, a day before Mr Biden takes office, according to the documents.

Legal experts said Mr Biden would likely not be able to overturn Mr Pack’s decision immediately, indicating that it could be months before all legal issues surrounding Mr Pack’s decision have been reached. answer.

Meanwhile, the Open Technology Fund could not receive money from the federal government and will only have enough funds to keep its staff of 10 employees until June, officials of the non-profit organization said. lucrative.

Without funding, projects that help provide nearly one in four Iranian citizens and 10 million people in China with internet access risk stopping, officials added.

“This is the coup de grace,” Laura Cunningham, interim managing director of the Open Technology Fund, said in a statement to the New York Times. “Without OTF, users around the world will be cut off from the global Internet.”

A spokesperson for the US Agency for Global Media said the agency is committed to funding a range of firewall circumvention technologies.

Mr. Pack cited several reasons why he decided to deprive the Open Technology Fund of federal funding.

He said the organization did not have “adequate authorization from Congress” to be a -funded nonprofit, according to documents. The fund started in 2012 as a pilot program within Radio Free Asia, a broadcasting medium under the jurisdiction of the agency. In 2019, Congress allowed him to become an independent, non-profit media agency scholar.

Mr Pack said the Open Technology Fund broke conflict of interest rules by not disclosing whether he paid its board of directors. He also said the funds his agency gave to the non-profit group had “no apparent impact” on internet freedom.

Tools supported by the Open Technology Fund are recommended by organizations, including the United Nations.

“Sir. Pack’s allegations against the OTF are without merit and absolutely absurd,” said Ms. Cunningham. “The absurd and easily refutable nature of Mr. Pack’s allegations makes it clear that his actions are purely punitive and without substantial basis or cause. . “

The Open Technology Fund received bipartisan support in Congress. At a congressional watch hearing in September for the US World Media Agency – where Mr Pack ignored a subpoena – lawmakers said the fund’s budget of $ 20 million had been invaluable to stem the progress of Chinese and Russian surveillance technology, protecting humans. rights activists and journalists in repressive societies around the world, while allowing millions of people to access the Internet around the world.

In a joint statement on Saturday, Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, both Republicans, said Mr. Pack’s attempts to deprive the Open Technology Fund of access to US funding for the next three years, called exclusion, would be a significant setback from US foreign policy goals.

This effort “is a blow to democratic movements around the world which rely on their services to push back authoritarian regimes,” they said. “This latest attempt by CEO Pack to bypass Congress and gut the Open Technology Fund, which is a lifeline for freedom fighters around the world, is absolutely unacceptable and will endanger democratic movements and lives,” worldwide.”

The Open Technology Fund became Mr. Pack’s target soon after taking office. He resigned from the fund’s board in June. This decision has been challenged in federal courts. A federal judge has temporarily set aside Mr Pack’s decision until a final decision is rendered.

In June, Mr. Pack temporarily withheld millions of dollars in funding from the nonprofit. In response, 527 human rights organizations and internet freedom groups – including Human Rights Watch and the Wikimedia Foundation, which hosts Wikipedia.com – called on members of Congress to protect the group from Mr. Pack’s non-profit shares.

Much of the concern around the Open Technology Fund revolves around the resistance of its leaders to fund firewall bypass software called Ultrasurf, developed by a member of Falun Gong, the secret spiritual movement persecuted by the Fund. Chinese Communist Party. The group embraced Mr. Trump for his anti-China positions.

Michael J. Horowitz, Reagan administration budget manager and longtime Ultrasurf supporter, appeared on Mr. Bannon’s show in June to denounce Libby Liu, the founder of the Open Technology Fund, saying ‘she should be fired. Ms Liu – who Mr Pack sacked in June – is not a supporter of Ultrasurf funding, a current Open Technology Fund official said.

The State Department released an audit of Ultrasurf in July, claiming that “the Ultrasurf platform, in its current state, would be a costly and inefficient waste of US tax dollars.” In November, Mr. Pack provided Ultrareach Internet Corp., Ultrasurf’s parent company, with a contract worth nearly $ 1.8 million, according to federal data.