The Free Internet Project

D.C. Circuit Blocks Trump Appointee Michael Pack from Replacing Open Technology Funds’ Leadership

Granting an emergency motion, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an injunction blocking the new CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) Michael Pack, appointed by Donald Trump, from replacing the existing Open Technology Fund (OTF) board members with his own replacements.The OTF is a non-profit organization, one of several global media agencies monitored by the US. The OTF has funded programs in sixty countries, providing nearly two billion people, including journalists, with secured and uncensored communication tools, according to the Washington Post.

On July 21, 2020, the D.C. Court of Appeals disagreed with the lower court's rejection of the Open Technology Fund's motion for preliminary injunction. In its order, the D.C. Court of Appeals found that OTF had shown a likelihoood of success that Pack lacked statutory authority "to remove and replace members of OTF's board."  The court also found OTF would suffer irreparable harm without the injunction: “[T]he government's actions have jeopardized OTF’s relationships with its partner organizations, leading its partner organizations to fear for their safety.” The injunction restored the status quo – it reinstated the previous OTF board until the court issues a decision in the expedited appeal.

A lawyer for OTF board members, Deepak Gupta, applauded the decision. Gupta stated Pack’s actions don’t “just harm OTF and the people who work there. OTF works to advance internet freedom in repressive regimes around the world and Pack’s actions have put the safety of activists and journalists, in places like Tehran and Hong Kong, at risk.”

One day after the D.C. Circuit issued its order, the D.C. Attorney General, Karl Racine, also sued the USAGM alleging Pack’s attempted takeover of the OTF violated a local law concerning the governance of non-profit organizations. Plaintiffs in this new lawsuit include OTF board members, former ambassadors Ryan Cocker and Karen Kornbluh, public relations executive Michael Kempner, and Democratic technology policy advisor Ben Scott.

Pack took office in June 2020. Shortly after his confirmation, Pack fired the leadership of taxpayer-funded media organizations the USAGM oversees and replaced them with career officials. Three such international media outlets’ ousted leadership include Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, and Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Pack’s actions in the last month have raised massive concerns from many – from House Representatives, Senators, and others. Pack’s actions are being seen as an effort to foster favorable media coverage of Trump and his Administration.

Eleven Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives penned a letter to the heads of the House of Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Program, stating they were “deeply concerned about the firings of qualified leadership and “reports that USAGM has frozen funds and grants” for programs related to censorship evasion and internet freedom in Hong Kong and elsewhere."

Seven U.S. Senators, including GOP Senators Rubio and Graham, wrote a letter directly to Pack. In the letter, Rubio and his colleagues wrote:

The termination of qualified, expert staff and network heads for no specific reason as well as the removal of their boards raises questions about the preservation of these entities and their ability to implement their statutory missions now and in the future. These actions, which came without any consultation with Congress, let alone notification, raise serious questions about the future of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) under your leadership.

Another major worry concerns the switch to closed-source technologies, as opposed to the open-source technologies that OTF has built its reputation on. Open-source software publishes its source code publicly, so it can be studied, verified, and improved upon by others; closed-source software does not.

“This is really the worst-case scenario,” Jillian York, the Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told VICE News. She continued, “I think the really dangerous thing here is that the new leadership is under pressure to fund these closed-source technologies.”


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