Today, I submitted written testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on State Department, Foreign Operations and Related Programs. Click here to download a pdf of the testimony.
Chairman Coons, Ranking Member Graham, and members of the Subcommittee:
Thank you for the opportunity to submit written testimony. 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 am writing to respectfully request full funding for the Open Technology Fund (OTF), which will receive $40 million in FY2023. The administration’s FY24 budget request includes $47.5 million for OTF. This modest increase will help OTF continue its critical work of advancing global internet freedom, including by supporting the development of open source technologies to evade surveillance and counter digital authoritarianism. With a limited budget since its creation in 2012, OTF has supported the development of open source technologies that are used by more than two billion people around the world. In addition, I respectfully suggest that the Subcommittee include report language in the report accompanying the FY2023 funding bill to direct the State Department to submit to Congress and publish an annual report on the state of internet freedom around the world. The report should describe the State Department’s programs and the return on investment of their work promoting internet freedom and countering digital authoritarianism.
Promoting individual freedom and human rights has been a longstanding, bipartisan American national security priority. In the twenty-first century, the United States government has sought to promote internet freedom to ensure that people around the world have access to basic human freedoms online. In 2023, the United States assumed the chairship of the Freedom Online Coalition, “a coalition of governments working to support internet freedom and promote respect for human rights, including the freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, as well as privacy rights, both online and offline.”
The United States and its allies face significant challenges ensuring internet freedom around the world. In 2022, Freedom House reported that global internet freedom declined for the 12th consecutive year, citing the largest declines in “Russia, Myanmar, Sudan, and Libya,” over the past year. Moreover, Freedom House reported that China remains the worst environment for internet freedom for the eighth consecutive year.
Created in 2012, the Open Technology Fund is a non-profit organization, funded by the U.S. Agency for Global Media, with a mission to “advance global internet freedom” by supporting “projects focused on counteracting repressive censorship and surveillance, enabling citizens worldwide to exercise their fundamental human rights online.” In a 2022 report for the Foundation for American Innovation, former Senior Fellow Deepesh Chaudhari and I reviewed OTF’s first decade of activity and impact. OTF has supported the development of some of the most widely used security tools on the planet, including Signal, a secure messaging and communications application used around the world to protect the integrity of personal communications. But OTF’s ability to support internet freedom has been limited by modest funding. Between 2012 and 2022, OTF had vetted more than 3,500 requests for support totalling more than $450 million, far surpassing the organization’s funding capacity during that period.
In recent years, Congress has wisely supported OTF, and the organization has attracted philanthropic support from the private sector. The FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act codified OTF by establishing it in law and clarifying its mission. OTF’s appropriations increased from $27 million in FY2022 to $40 million in FY2023. The organization’s projects have also attracted support from philanthropists. In January, OTF announced the formation of a new Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Sustainability Fund “to ensure that free and open source software projects and the communities that sustain them have the resources and support needed to maintain and secure these critical tools.” OTF explained that “these contributions also help to match OTF’s Congressional funding with non-federal resources and deliver on OTF’s mandate to maximize cooperation between public and private sectors.”
The proposed $7.514 million funding increase for FY24 would continue this growth and help OTF continue its important work during a time when the challenges for internet freedom are growing. In recent years, OTF has had to focus more resources responding to “numerous acute digital emergencies through its Rapid Response Fund,” with projects in Myanmar, Brazil, Iran, Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere.” These efforts complement the U.S. Agency for Global Media’s mission to ”inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy,” by providing access to surveillance circumvention tools. For example, OTF reported that more than 30 million people in Iran use OTF-supported circumvention tools on a monthly basis, adding that “the vast majority of UsAGM’s online audience in Iran – over 90 percent – uses OTF-supported circumvention tools to access USGAM content.”
To support OTF’s work, the Subcommittee should do the following.
First, the Subcommittee should fully fund the administration’s budget request for the Open Technology Fund, increasing its appropriations by $7.5 million to $47.514 million in FY2024.While it is clear that the United States is on an unsustainable fiscal path, this relatively modest funding and proposed increase for the OTF is an important investment for U.S. national security and the longstanding foreign policy priority of promoting internet freedom and access to free and open information to counter authoritarianism. Congress could reprioritize funding within the State Department, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs budget to provide additional resources for OTF. Opportunities exist to improve efficiency. The Government Accountability Office has 105 open recommendations for the Department of State and 24 for the U.S. Agency for International Development, as of April 14, 2023.
Second, the Subcommittee should direct the State Department to submit to Congress and publish an annual report on the state of internet freedom around the world. The report should describe the State Department’s programs and the return on investment of their efforts promoting internet freedom and countering digital authoritarianism.Congress and the American people would benefit from additional reporting from the State Department about the full scope of its activities in this area. (The Internet Freedom Operations Act of 2022, legislation introduced in the Senate and House in the 117th Congress, would have established a similar reporting requirement.) A detailed annual report describing State, USAID, and other agencies’ programs, their return on investment, and the current landscape of global internet freedom and digital authoritarianism would help Congress and the American people understand what resources and programs are needed now and in the future.
In conclusion, the Open Technology Fund has provided a substantial return on investment by advancing its mission to promote internet freedom around the world. Technologies supported by the OTF are now used by billions of people. But the OTF’s mission and challenge of promoting internet freedom and the world faces growing threats. Fully funding OTF’s budget request for FY2024 would be a valuable investment consistent with American national security priorities. Looking forward, improving transparency about U.S. government internet freedom promotion activities and the broader challenge of digital authoritarianism around the world would provide a roadmap for Congress and the American people.