The fight to remove Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is equally occurring virtually. Attempts to quell protests by shutting down the internet have been resisted with the use of Psiphon, a censorship circumvention software funded by the United States Agency for Global Media’s (USAGM) Open Technology Fund (OTF). However, on U.S. soil, OTF is fighting its own battle. USAGM is currently undergoing a state of transition that is concerning to many. The purging of top officials appointed by both President Trump and President Obama, as well as the halting of nearly all projects undertaken by OTF have thrust the organization into the spotlight. In a time where the internet is becoming less free for more people, recent actions taken by the USAGM have left the organization unclear on how the United States will advocate for worldwide internet freedom.
USAGM’s and OTF’s Purpose
The history and creation of USAGM can be noted as one of continuous consolidating. As a parent company for Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), USAGM’s mission is to “inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” In 2012, within RFA, the Open Technology Fund was created in order to promote internet freedom and provide the technology needed to circumvent censorship, surveillance, and security and privacy concerns, especially for citizens of repressed societies. With a $15 million budget, OTF has not only become its own, independent non-profit organization in 2019, but has also brought information and privacy to more than 2 billion people.
The removal of top figures from their posts and the halting of OTF’s work can be seen as a signal of more consolidation occurring within USAGM. Future plans to reopen the Office of Internet Freedom, a branch of USAGM that was established in 2016 and later disbanded signals this as well. However, the halting of projects vital to the cause of ending internet oppression could be interpreted as supporting that same oppression. Nevertheless, the shaking up that is happening within the organization raises two key issues.
Inaction will Cause the Pendulum to Swing Towards Oppression
There is bipartisan concern that the lack of clarity within USAGM will bolster other regimes’ attempts at manipulating the virtual landscape. The global decline of internet freedom demands constant push back, lest information blocking and monitoring continue to increase. The sudden halting of OTF projects and efforts leaves the more than 2 billion internet users who are dependent on the organization’s technology vulnerable to censorship, surveillance, and security and privacy concerns. As a result, the upper hand is given to oppressive regimes intent on withholding information and monitoring their citizens. Protests against then Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta were met with internet monitoring and restrictions on social media. China’s censorship efforts affect internet users outside of the country’s borders. The isolationism that has resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic has been used as a strategic advantage in autocratic societies.
Surveillance has Consequences
ASP’s report, The New Public Diplomacy Imperative, argued that successful public diplomacy requires the need to follow through on policy commitments in conjunction with an established communications goal. Recently appointed USAGM CEO Michael Pack’s push for freedom of information gives a defined point of view on blocking information, but says nothing about surveillance. The issue of whether, and how much, the United States is for or against internet surveillance in practice is not new. However, the risk that internet surveillance poses is the possibility that oppressive regimes will observe the United States’ actions and use it to justify their own actions. Furthermore, surveillance can also easily be translated into forms of oppression, extortion, or blackmail. Further discussion of the United States’ surveillance activity of visitors as well as its own citizens could not only undermine the country’s efforts for internet freedom, but also make the country appear hypocritical.
The need for USAGM to have a clear and urgent goal concerning internet freedom is essential. Heightened internet activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic and increased social unrest worldwide demand unrelenting efforts to combat surveillance and the censorship of information.