Oversight

Wyden disparages purge at Open Technology Fund

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore) election night 2016 shutterstock image photo credit: Diego G Diaz 

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is seeking answers about the circumstances behind a series of abrupt firings at the non-profit Open Technology Fund carried out by a Trump administration official.

The non-profit, which receives federal funding and operates under the oversight of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, disperses research grants and "support projects focused on counteracting repressive censorship and surveillance," in particular open source technologies. The organization was thrown into disarray last week when its CEO, President and board were dismissed shortly after conservative filmmaker Michael Pack was installed as head of the USAGM – which is the parent agency overseeing Voice Of America and other U.S. government-led broadcast networks.

Pack also reportedly fired the head Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network. The top two editors at Voice of America, which had recently been criticized by President Donald Trump, also resigned last week, citing Pack's arrival.

The moves prompted an immediate lawsuit by the Open Technology Fund. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Elliot Engel (D-N.Y.) has called for Pack to appear before the committee to answer further questions about the dismissal. A coalition of more than 450 tech and digital rights organizations wrote signed onto an open letter urging Congress to protect the Open Technology Fund and other organizations from political interference.

"It is imperative that Congress ensure that the new leadership of the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM) does not dismantle OTF, and, against the intent of Congress, rescind U.S. government support for its essential work," the groups wrote.

Wyden asked Pack in a June 24 letter about motivations behind the dismissals and demanding further information about potential changes to the OTF's mission.

"The new board you have installed [at OTF] has no one with any cybersecurity expertise, and instead is made up of partisan appointees with a concerning record on relevant human rights issues," Wyden wrote.

Wyden called the OTF's work funding cybersecurity research vital to fighting digital censorship and promoting human rights around the world, citing its support for the development of encrypted chat apps like Signal, WhatsApp and Skype and other technologies used by whistleblowers.

He asked Pack to respond to a series of questions by July 15, including whether he would commit to hiring a CEO and at least two board members at OTF with backgrounds in cybersecurity and if he will keep policies in place requiring OTF-funded projects two undergo independent cybersecurity audits. He is also seeking to learn if OTF will continue its technical advisory board and fund free cybersecurity audits for open source technology projects.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.

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