LGBTQ internet freedoms may be at risk on a global scale due to the new leadership at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, according to technology freedom experts.
The agency, which operates independently from the U.S. government, oversees five different entities that include Voice of America and Radio Martí, broadcasting platforms and the Open Technology Fund. This fund is an independent non-profit organization that focuses on advancing global internet freedom by providing internet access, digital privacy tutorials, privacy enhancement and security tools like encryption.
The U.S. Senate on June 4 confirmed Michael Pack, a conservative documentary filmmaker, as the U.S. Agency for Global Media’s new CEO. Pack quickly fired then-Open Technology Fund CEO Libby Liu after she announced her resignation with hopes to carry out the rest of her term.
Pack also fired Laura Cunningham, the fund’s former president, along with the heads of Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting two weeks after his appointment.
Internet freedom advocates days after the firings circulated an online petition to “Save OTF” and “Save Internet Freedom Tech” to “demand the U.S. Congress continue supporting the Open Technology Fund and global internet freedom.” This petition has received bipartisan support from the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate and has been signed by 506 organizations and companies that include Human Rights Watch and Reddit.
The Open Technology Fund and board members from the U.S. Agency for Global Media also filed a lawsuit against Pack on June 23, claiming the firings were unlawful.
Experts fear movement towards closed source technology
There has been a public outcry from internet security experts who fear these new leadership changes may mean a diversion of funds and a change from open source technology to closed source technology.
Open source technology is a source code format that is publicly available, meaning programmers can read or change the building blocks of an application. A closed source software hides the code from the public, preventing people from viewing or modifying the script.
According to Sandra Ordonez, the director of the Internet Freedom Festival which the Open Technology Fund funds, open source technology is integral to internet freedom and privacy as it allows users to see surveillance on or attempts to hack their devices. The change to closed source technology may also limit the development of technology programs in countries where tools like Microsoft are not readily available.
In the 71 countries where it is illegal to be LGBTQ, internet privacy and security measures like the ones provided by the Open Technology Fund are critical safety tools, said Afsaneh Rigot, a program officer at Article 19, a human rights organization focused on defending the freedom of expression and information.
“When we’re talking about the privacy and security of groups that are severely marginalized and get impacted most by the structures that oppress them, internet privacy, access, and avenues for protection, are fundamental,” said Rigot.
Ordonez also said LGBTQ people are automatically at risk in countries where homosexuality is outlawed or taboo.
“When LGBT people put themselves online, they put themselves at risk,” she said.
New leadership is a ‘bad omen’
When looking at a new, conservative leadership at the U.S. Agency for Global Media under Pack, Rigot said it “really limits avenues within which we can work with funders that can support this kind of work and create a safer space for our communities. And, it creates a bit of a vacuum in terms of funders that we can trust to do this.”
The space is already limited for LGBTQ communities, she said.
Xeenarh Mohammed, the executive director of the Initiative for Equal Rights in Lagos, Nigeria, said Pack’s appointment is a “bad omen.”
Mohammed was previously a fellow for the fund, working on security training for LGBTQ organizations in Nigeria. Same-sex marriage is illegal in Nigeria and being LGBTQ is still dangerous. Mohammad helped organizations protect files, personal information and digital documents during government raids.
Now, with the Initiative for Equal Rights, Mohammed conducts security training for individuals and organizations designed to help LGBTQ people avoid entrapment, hacking, blackmail and extortion by government actors in Nigeria. The Open Technology Fund currently funds her work.
If the fund diverts her funding or moves to closed-source technology tools, Mohammed said initiatives like her work in Nigeria would “cease to exist.”
Mohammed said most of these predictions began as rumors. Once President Trump came into office and later announced in 2018 he intended to name Pack as CEO, she said many herself and other technology experts assumed that there would be a “hostile takeover” of the agency.
Because Pack moved to fire many technology experts within days of his confirmation, Mohammed said she believes that those rumors may be becoming reality.
“All he did was just confirm everything that people expected was going to happen,” she said.
Rigot, the program officer at Article 19, said Pack’s appointment and the firings of Liu and Cunningham suggest the Trump administration wants to change the structure of the Open Technology Fund.
Firing Liu, Cunningham and other agency leaders hint a potential shift in priorities could happen, such as moving to closed source technology, according to Rigot.
“In theory, potentially, we’re moving the barriers and implementing leadership personalities … that ensure that the sort of projects that this administration and this new leadership wanted to be seen as priorities without much resistance [from former leadership]” she said.
Open Technology Fund’s future remains uncertain
In 2016, Rigot worked on queer dating apps with Article 19 in Iran, Lebanon and Egypt to “bring in some harm-reduction techniques to support the local groups and the users themselves, and try to mitigate and navigate the risk that they’re facing.” Users were facing entrapment and targeting from fake users on queer dating apps, which has also happened in several countries that include Egypt and Nigeria.
Rigot’s project involved the queer dating app companies themselves, Article 19, local LGBTQ organizations and technologists to find ways to mitigate the targeting of LGBTQ individuals. Now, Grindr has implemented discrete icons and other tools in countries where being LGBTQ is dangerous. For example, researchers saw phones being searched at checkpoints in Egypt, and decided to create a feature that hid the Grindr logo.
“The logo of Grindr itself is so known, one of the things that people wanted for safety reasons was for that logo to be cloaked as a calculator, or a calendar, or something similar, so it didn’t cause suspicion,” she said.
Grindr has implemented a security message on the app, warning users of entrapment or targeting.
“If you live in any place where being LGBTQ puts you in danger, here are some things that you can do to guarantee your security while using Grindr,” reads one such message in Spanish for users in Honduras.
Rigot said projects like this one conducted in 2016 could be halted under Pack.
Mohammed said she feels “helpless” and “frustrated” about the leadership changes and the unknown future of open-source technology.
“Of course, we’re not Americans, we don’t have a say in what happens in America, but those decisions that are taken affect us greatly,” Mohammed said. “All of the communities I belong to have come under attack: Immigrant, Black, queer, Muslim,” said Mohammed. “So it’s really frustrating to not be able to do something, but I’m hoping that the people in Congress right now who have given bi-partisan support to the [fund]” do that and hold the light ensure that this hostile takeover does not sit,” she said.
The U.S. Agency for Global Media and the Open Technology Fund did not respond to the Washington Blade’s requests for a comment.