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The Open Technology Fund’s vital role for democracy worldwide should not be undermined

The Open Technology Fund plays a vital role for democracy worldwide. That’s why Mozilla on Friday joined a friend of the court brief in support of the Open Technology Fund’s independence from government control as OTF’s case moves forward to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Open Technology Fund is a U.S. government funded, independent nonprofit corporation with a mission to support development of open-source technologies that “increase free expression, circumvent censorship, and obstruct repressive surveillance as a way to promote human rights and open societies.” One such OTF-supported project is Tor Browser, which is built on the Firefox codebase and enables encrypted access to the web for anonymous browsing. Another is Let’s Encrypt, a free certificate authority enabling more secure web connections that began as a project of Mozilla, EFF, and the University of Michigan. These are invaluable tools not only to citizens of authoritarian regimes, but more broadly to internet users everywhere who rely on them to protect the privacy of their personal associations, communications, and interests.

OTF’s vital role in promoting internet freedom worldwide was severely threatened last month when Michael Pack, the newly installed CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), fired the head of OTF and appointed a new acting director, a move that we do not believe he has the legal authority to take. Originally a project of Radio Free Asia, which is supervised by USAGM along with Voice of America and other government-funded media outlets, OTF in 2019 spun off into its own independent nonprofit corporation while continuing to receive federal funding. In response to Mr. Pack’s recent actions, OTF filed suit, challenging his authority to dictate the leadership of the organization under the new structure.

OTF’s independence from any government is critical to its mission. Digital tools to make the internet more secure and safer for speech will be less effective if they are perceived to be influenced by government interests. At a time when surveillance and censorship are increasing worldwide, this consequence would be particularly troubling. Moreover, the first amendment implications of USAGM’s actions are significant; as the brief notes: “the independence of private entities and civil society from the government is a hallmark of our democracy.” It is Mozilla’s hope that the Court will recognize these concerns and deliver an opinion that preserves OTF’s ability to serve as an indispensable resource for digital privacy and security, and for democracy.