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How a fight over anti-censorship funding became a symbol of Trump administration turmoil

The Open Technology Fund is a small, government-funded organization that fights for internet freedom around the globe -- the kind of freedom restricted by governments in China and Iran and cut off last week by Myanmar's military. On Friday, OTF received funding that had been halted last year in a battle over what became a symbol of Trump administration turmoil. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, a small, U.S. government-funded organization, the Open Technology Fund, received money that was frozen last year.

    Referred to as OTF, it advocates for Internet freedom the kind of freedom that was cut off last week by the Myanmar military and restricted by governments, including China, which banned the BBC yesterday, and Iran.

    Nick Schifrin reports on how the battle over OTF's funding was a symbol of Trump administration turmoil and how this small group wages a global war.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the 21st century war between activists and authoritarians, protesters try to avoid beatings, torture, and even death with the digital shields of Dmitri Vitaliev.

  • Dmitri Vitaliev:

    Enable or to empower these activists who were doing what I believe was important work around the world.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Vitaliev's work and mission? Protect Belarusian activists from government surveillance and help them defeat Internet censorship.

  • Dmitri Vitaliev:

    The powers that be who surveil and censor access to the Internet grow in their capacity. We have been kind of invested in building local capacity and giving them access to new tools and new methods with which they can secure themselves, with which they can circumvent Internet censorship.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Vitaliev's activism was born from his father's bravery. Vitali Vitaliev was a journalist forced to defect from Russia after he criticized the government.

    They left in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell. Eastern Europe coursed with a fever for freedom, encouraged for decades by U.S. federal broadcaster Voice of America.

  • Narrator:

    The Courier, a ship without guns, goes into battle with the greatest weapon of all, truth.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    VOA promoted American ideals by presenting objective news.

  • Narrator:

    Citizens around the world are being tortured, imprisoned, and even killed for their online speech.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, VOA's digital descendent is the Open Technology Fund that promotes American ideals by maintaining Internet freedom. Its budget, only $20 million, its staff only 11, but OTF Funded the technology that became Signal, and Signal's technology now powers Facebook Messenger, Skype, and WhatsApp for more than two billion people.

    OTF technology is on two-thirds of the world's phones. OTF also funds Vitaliev.

  • Dmitri Vitaliev:

    These type of activities, these type of projects are very much in line with the American principles, democracy, freedom of speech, human dignity. And it is in the interests, I believe, of the United States to continue to support these kind of efforts.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But then arrived Michael Pack.

  • Michael Pack:

    That I want to clear out the problems in the agency, both the mismanagement and the bias.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last year, Pack became CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees federal broadcasters, including VOA, and funds agencies including OTF. He targeted the very government employees he led, pushed on by President Trump.

  • Donald Trump:

    If you heard what's coming out of the Voice of America, it's disgusting.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Pack fired senior aides, editors, and entire boards of trustees. He kicked foreign journalists out of the country and investigated journalists for being critical of President Trump. He withheld OTF's congressionally mandated budget, leaving his own soldiers on the battlefield temporarily defenseless.

  • Dmitri Vitaliev:

    From one day to the next, we have to stop your funding.

  • Laura Cunningham:

    It's truly not clear to me what his motivations are or who these actions benefit, other than authoritarian regimes and enemies of Internet freedom and freedom of expression around the world.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Laura Cunningham is the CEO of the Open Technology Fund. Pack tried to fire her and the entire OTF board, and then tried to effectively destroy OTF by barring it from federal funding.

  • Laura Cunningham:

    Removing support for OTF and removing support for those technologies, we are putting people who have risked their lives at even greater risk of being attacked and silenced by authoritarian regimes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    People like Nima Fatemi.

  • Nima Fatemi:

    I have had to distance myself from my family quite a bit to increase their safety.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Fatemi is an Iranian-born activist. The Iranian government considers his work such a threat, it's not safe for him to tell his family back in Iran what he does.

    His software Kandoo is OTF-funded and protects Iranian demonstrators. He watched during the 2009 Green Revolution and last year's protests, as Iran shut down the Internet and persecuted protesters for their digital communications.

    In 2012, blogger Sattar Beheshti criticized the regime. The cyber-police unit arrested him. He died in custody.

  • Nima Fatemi:

    I think, like, secure communication is the step zero of any change in any society.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But he too was cut off when Pack froze OTF's funding.

  • Michael Pack:

    America must reassert itself in the new global war of ideas.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Pack argues OTF was mismanaged and revitalized an alternate Internet freedom organization.

    But his real motivation, according to a dozen interviews conducted by "PBS NewsHour," might be this group. The Falun Gong opposes the Chinese Communist Party.

    To circumvent Beijing's Great Firewall, it funded technology called UltraSurf. It was backed by an unusual consortium of Pack and Trump allies. OTF's predecessor declined to provide funding, and UltraSurf refused to submit to OTF vetting.

    But, in November, Pack signed a contract to fund UltraSurf with up to $2 million…

  • Man:

    In this episode, we sit down with Michael Pack.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    … and just a few days later gave an on-camera interview to the Falun Gong-backed Epoch Times.

  • Man:

    Michael Pack, such a pleasure to have you on "American Thought Leaders."

  • Michael Pack:

    Thank you for having me on.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Pack's era at USAGM is ending ignominiously. Last month, in the space of three weeks, whistle-blowers accused Pack of propaganda, D.C.'s attorney general accused him of illegally funneling money, and then he resigned under pressure from the Biden transition team.

    But the wounds he inflicted will take time to heal.

  • Laura Cunningham:

    We are seeing the Chinese government and the Russian government flooding markets to monitor and co-opt the public and civil society.

    So, this is not just about removing critical tools. It's also about strengthening the hand of our adversaries.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Those adversaries are watching, trying to censor and control. Campaigners urge the U.S. to continue the fight for Internet freedom, so activists, and not authoritarians, can hold the future in their hands.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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