Blackburn, Menendez Lead Effort to Protect Free Speech Online

May 22, 2020

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) have introduced the Open Technology Fund Authorization Act to expand the U.S. government’s support for internet freedom by addressing authoritarian regimes’ escalating efforts to censor, restrict, and surveil the internet. Senators Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) are original cosponsors.

Repressive censorship and surveillance have become global phenomena, threatening the universal human rights of free speech and free press. Authoritarian regimes have leveraged COVID-19 response schemes against their own people, restricting the ability of individuals to distribute or publish information related to the virus, imposing criminal penalties for defying speech restrictions, and limiting access to information.

The Open Technology Fund (OTF) plays a critical role in U.S. efforts to address the increasing levels of Internet censorship and surveillance. As an independent non-profit organization, the OTF supports open technology and community projects that counteract repressive censorship and surveillance, enabling Internet users to exercise their fundamental human rights online.

“Leading censors like China and Russia are not only employing more sophisticated means to control the lives of their citizens online; they are also exporting their censorship and surveillance tactics to illiberal regimes abroad,” said Senator Blackburn.

“Authoritarian regimes’ use and export of repressive surveillance and censorship tools including China, Russia, and Iran represent an effort to fundamentally change how the Internet operates. Leaders of these countries, by silencing free speech and curbing political freedoms in the digital domain, are attempting to establish and expand a model for digital governance that can only be described as digital authoritarianism. The Open Technology Fund is one important element of the United States’ effort to fight the expansion of digital authoritarianism and ensure people around the world have tools to promote human rights, the free flow of information, and hold their governments accountable and to ensure the Internet remains a free, stable, and secure arena for the free flow of ideas around the world,” said Senator Menendez.

“We’ve seen nations like Communist China actively censor its own citizens – including those who attempted to warn the globe about the threat of the Coronavirus. Communist China is violating human rights and oppressing the people of Hong Kong in an effort to silence its critics and pursue global dominance,” Senator Rick Scott said. “The U.S. cannot sit idly by while regimes across the nation deny the basic right of free speech. I’m proud to cosponsor the Open Technology Fund Authorization Act to fight against this injustice across the world.”

“Keeping the internet free from government censorship and oppressive government surveillance is critical to free expression and political freedom around the world. This bill will aid the fight against authoritarian governments online,” said Senator Wyden.

Representatives Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) recently introduced the Open Technology Fund Authorization Act (H.R.6621) to authorize the OTF as an independent grantee of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), augmenting the OTF’s capacity to advance Internet freedom in repressive environments overseas.

The Senate version of the Open Technology Fund Authorization Act would complement these efforts to expand U.S. Internet freedom capabilities by taking the following important steps:

  • Authorizing the establishment of the OTF as an independent grantee within USAGM;
  • Requiring the OTF to develop, maintain, and deliver technologies to circumvent authoritarian governments’ efforts to restrict Internet freedom;
  • Requiring the OTF to research and analyze emerging technical threats and to develop innovative solutions with the public and private sectors;
  • Requiring OTF technologies to remain fully open-source in perpetuity;
  • Requiring USAGM to ensure the OTF’s Internet freedom projects are coordinated with those of the State Department and other U.S. Government departments;
  • Directing the OTF to annually report to Congress on its Internet freedom activities;
  • Requiring the State Department’s Inspector General to audit the OTF’s operations to assess their soundness and effectiveness;
  • Directing the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to audit the OTF’s financial transactions; and
  • Authorizing appropriations of $20 million in Fiscal Year 2021 and $25 million in Fiscal Year 2022 to establish and implement the OTF.