WASHINGTON — When Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker and ally of Stephen K. Bannon, recently fired the heads of four U.S. government-funded news outlets, many became alarmed that he would turn the independently operated organizations, as well as the Voice of America, into “Trump TV.”
But Mr. Pack, the new chief executive of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, also cleaned house last month at the lesser-known Open Technology Fund, an internet freedom group overseen by the agency Mr. Pack now runs.
Many worry that the move could have an even greater effect.
In less than a decade, the Open Technology Fund has quietly become integral to the world’s repressed communities. Over two billion people in 60 countries rely on tools developed and supported by the fund, like Signal and Tor, to connect to the internet securely and send encrypted messages in authoritarian societies.
After Mr. Pack was confirmed for his new post on June 4, following a personal campaign of support by President Trump, Mr. Pack fired the technology group’s top officials and board, an action now being fought in the courts. The move was a victory for a lobbying effort backed by religious freedom advocates displeased with the fund’s work and who are often allied with conservative political figures.
This battle revolves around software developed by Falun Gong, the secretive spiritual movement persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party.
Some Falun Gong members have become notable players in American politics. The Epoch Times, a newspaper started by Falun Gong practitioners, has spent millions of dollars on pro-Trump ads, including conspiratorial ones, on Facebook and YouTube — and was even banned by Facebook last year from buying more ads because it had tried to evade advertising rules.
Now, allies of Falun Gong are making a big push for the Open Technology Fund and the State Department to give money to some of the group’s software, notably Ultrasurf, developed about a decade ago by a Falun Gong member.
Their thinking is that if enough Chinese citizens have this software to bypass the Great Firewall of government censorship, the citizens will see news about repression by the Communist Party.
But pieces of circumvention software like Ultrasurf are considered old, and they are not widespread in China, according to cybersecurity experts. Just as important, Chinese patriots or nationalists who have access to reports critical of the Communist Party — including students in the United States — often do not change their views.
“Anyone who has studied China’s information control regimes and the evolution of Chinese technology knows that funding a set of circumvention tools is not going to bring down the Chinese Communist Party,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a former Beijing bureau chief for CNN who directs an internet freedom program at the New America Foundation.
Critics also warn that if lobbyists get their way and shift the fund’s focus toward solely supporting software like Ultrasurf, it could set back the fight for internet freedom by decades.
Republicans are also worried. Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina wrote to Mr. Pack in a letter on Wednesday with five other senators expressing their “deep concern” about his staff cuts, saying the moves raised “serious questions about the future of the U.S. Agency for Global Media” under his leadership. Other Republican members of Congress said earlier that they were concerned about the Open Technology Fund.
The group started in 2012 as a pilot program within Radio Free Asia. It was founded by Libby Liu, then the president of the broadcasting outlet. Seven years later, Congress allowed it to become an independent nonprofit grantee of the Agency for Global Media. Lawmakers appropriated $20 million to the group for its 2020 fiscal year.
The bulk of the money goes to incubating new technology that promotes human rights and open societies. The group supports projects such as widely popular encrypted messaging tools like Signal and technology like Pakistan’s first 24/7 hotline for confidentially reporting sexual harassment.
The Open Technology Fund also looks to create and train a community of technical experts who can fend off sophisticated cyberattacks against internet freedom.
One of the bedrock principles of the Open Technology Fund is to support open-source technology. Creating and funding tools that are open source means a worldwide collective of programmers can examine the products to ensure they are safe and secure for people in repressed societies to use, cybersecurity experts say.
“Imagine a teenager in a country where being L.G.B.T.Q. is illegal, and they just want to have a normal social life,” said Isabela Bagueros, the executive director of the Tor Project, a nonprofit digital privacy group. “The internet enables that, and if you provide the security for them to do so, it is extremely important as a part of life.”
At the heart of lobbying efforts supporting the Falun Gong developers are Michael J. Horowitz, a Reagan administration budget official, and Katrina Lantos Swett, the daughter of the former congressman Tom Lantos, Democrat of California and a noted champion for human rights.
During the time Mr. Pack assumed his role, they have worked to advance their agenda.
On June 13, three days after Mr. Pack took office, Mr. Horowitz was a guest on a talk show hosted by Mr. Bannon, who was formerly Mr. Trump’s chief strategist. Mr. Horowitz denounced Ms. Liu, who was the chief executive of the technology fund. Ms. Liu happened to be tendering her resignation to the board that day, effective in July. Mr. Pack fired her on June 17 and dismissed the board.
Ms. Swett has been vocal about her displeasure with leadership at the fund because they have shied away from focusing most of the group’s funding toward programs like Ultrasurf. She claims it is one of the most effective tools to fight against China’s firewall, despite criticism from experts who warn that since Ultrasurf is closed source, there is no way to independently verify its performance or assure end users that they are not being tracked.
“Open source versus closed source we don’t get hung up on those things,” Ms. Swett said.
Many internet freedom experts disagree with this approach.
“There is no person in their right mind who should be advocating for closed-source applications,” said Nima Fatemi, the founding director of Kandoo, an internet freedom nonprofit. “When we’re talking about people inside Iran, China and Russia who are already facing so much oppression, using these tools don’t guarantee safety or security; they actually put them in more danger.”
The day after Mr. Pack assumed office, Ms. Swett sent him and officials at the State Department a letter requesting that $20 million in funding be steered toward firewall circumvention programs like Ultrasurf. The State Department declined to comment.
And one day after Mr. Pack fired Ms. Liu, National Security Council officials received communication from the Lantos Foundation advocating the funding of programs like Ultrasurf.
Ms. Swett denied contacting the National Security Council herself, but she said she could not rule out whether someone on her foundation’s staff reached out to the organization. The National Security Council did not return an email seeking comment.
Current and former officials at the fund were also alarmed when Mr. Pack froze much of the organization’s funding a day after being sworn in.
Around $2 million was budgeted to train Hong Kong residents in fighting Chinese cyberattacks. Stopping it would have dealt a potential blow to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. More than $7 million was allocated to fund technology that could fight attempts to block access to news provided by U.S. government-funded broadcasting outlets like Voice of America.
The agency unfroze the nonprofit’s funding on Friday, according to an email obtained by The New York Times. The U.S. Agency for Global Media did not return a request for comment.
An initial pitch for funding Ultrasurf reached its peak around 2009 and 2010, during the first Obama administration. Mr. Horowitz, a religious freedom advocate, was a leader in those efforts. The company has received at least $8.4 million in funding from the U.S. government since 2013, according to records reviewed by The Times.
It stopped receiving money in 2017 after an internal analysis by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a precursor to the U.S. Agency for Global Media, showed that the program’s “cancellation had no impact” on allowing Chinese citizens to circumvent the country’s firewall to access news sites like Voice of America Mandarin, according to documents reviewed by The Times.
Ultrasurf estimates that it has over six million users in places like China, Iran and Russia, according to unverified analysis provided by Clint Jin, the company’s founder and a member of Falun Gong.
Multiple cybersecurity experts raised doubts about the company’s numbers.
“It’s a myopic, single-tool solution to a very complex, diverse problem,” Nathan Freitas, the founder of the Guardian Project, a collective of cybersecurity experts, said of firewall circumvention software like Ultrasurf. “It’s showing up with a hammer to solve everything.”