Letters And Testimony


Promoting Internet Freedom through the Open Technology Fund

letters and testimony

Promoting Internet Freedom through the Open Technology Fund

May 16, 2024

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Today, I submitted written testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. Click here to download a pdf of the testimony.

Chairman Diaz-Balart, Ranking Member Lee, and members of the Subcommittee:

My name is Dan Lips. I am Head of Policy at the Foundation for American Innovation, a think tank focused on promoting innovation, strengthening governance, and advancing national security. I write to respectfully request that the Subcommittee provide $60 million in funding for the Open Technology Fund (OTF) in FY2025 to support its mission of promoting the development of technologies that support internet freedom and enable people from around the world to counter authoritarian censorship and surveillance. In addition, I respectfully request that the Committee include report language that requires the State Department (State) to submit to Congress and publish describing the State Department and USAID’s internet freedom programs, their impact (including population served), and explain how the U.S. government is leveraging new technologies to narrow the global digital divide. The report should also include recommendations for how the State Department and Congress could prioritize resource allocation to expand internet freedom.

OTF will receive $40 million through the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) in 2024, and the Biden administration requested $50 million for FY2025. However, OTF needs substantially more funding to satisfy the growing international demand for OTF-supported technologies, including virtual private networks, that help users access a free and open internet and avoid authoritarian surveillance. OTF recently reported that technologies supported by the fund and its partner organizations serve 46 million people per month, and that the average cost of supporting this service is roughly seven cents per month or nearly a dollar per year. OTF recently announced a partnership with the USAGM and the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and the Bureau of Near East Affairs to establish a Multilateral Surge and Sustain Fund with nearly $18 million in funding.

This partnership highlights the recognition within the State Department and USAGM that technologies supported by OTF provide a critical benefit to global users and that providing additional resources is consistent with federal policy to promote internet freedom around the world. However, ensuring that OTF has sufficient resources to provide these services should not require funding transfers from other programs within the State Department. Providing an additional $20 million in funding for OTF, or a 50 percent increase over FY2024 levels, would ensure that funding VPNs and other technologies is possible without additional funding transfers.

Technologies supported by the OTF are critical for the success of the USAGM’s public diplomacy and broadcasting initiatives. In 2023 testimony, USAGM CEO Amanda Bennett testified that “[Voice of America] and [Radio Free Asia] represent some of the only sources of credible information for people living in China, while OTF increases their access to information – and their combined impact is powerful,” adding that OTF-supported VPNs “help over 4 million monthly active users protect their privacy while they access the internet.” She further explained that demand for OTF-supported services has dramatically increased in recent years: “Use of OTF-supported circumvention tools surged in Russia from only 250,000 monthly active users prior to the full-scale invasion in Ukraine to over 8 million today.”

Beyond providing additional funding to OTF, Congress and the State Department should review the federal government’s ongoing programs and expenditures aimed at promoting internet freedom and closing the digital divide, and identify opportunities to increase the return-on-investment from current expenditures. For example, the report could describe the State Department’s plans for leveraging satellite internet technology, which has the potential to connect people throughout the world and reduce foreign governments’ dependence on authoritarian countries for providing internet service.

To promote internet freedom, I respectfully recommend the following.

First, the Subcommittee should include $60 million for OTF to ensure that it continues to support freedom-enhancing technologies for people living in authoritarian societies around the world. This additional funding can be offset by reducing funding to other State Department or USAGM programs that do not provide a high return on investment.

Second, the Subcommittee should require the State Department, in coordination with USAID, to publish and submit to Congress a report describing U.S. government programs aimed at promoting internet freedom and closing the digital divide. This report should include data on the number of people served by each program to assess their impact. Further, the report should describe plans for leveraging promising technologies to further promote internet freedom and close the digital divide.

* * *

Since World War II, the United States has used internet broadcasting and other public diplomacy programs to promote American ideas and values and help people living in authoritarian societies have access to information from the free world. Today, continuing that mission requires supporting technologies that allow people to freely access information without censorship or being surveilled by authoritarian regimes. Increasing funding for OTF and encouraging the State Department to leverage new technologies to promote internet freedom would advance the United States’ longstanding commitment to promoting human rights around the world.

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