Jun 23, 2020 - World

In media agency shakeup, conservative groups push for Falun Gong-backed internet tools

Illustration of an open padlock with the Chinese flag on it
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

In the wake of a leadership change at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), a small group of religious freedom advocates is trying to secure millions of dollars in funding for two internet censorship circumvention tools developed by supporters of the Falun Gong, a controversial religious group banned in China.

Why it matters: In recent years, Falun Gong supporters have made common cause with the global far-right, and a growing rapport between its advocates and U.S. ultra-conservatives within USAGM could override internal vetting processes and channel funding toward pet projects.

What's happening: After Trump appointee and Steve Bannon ally Michael Pack took over at USAGM last week, he fired the heads of its media agencies and replaced board members with administration loyalists without international broadcasting experience.

  • The shake-up is fueling concerns that the takeover might herald a politicization of U.S. government media.
  • Pack also fired Libby Liu, head of the Open Technology Fund, an organization under USAGM oversight that helps develop internet privacy and censorship circumvention tools such as Signal, a widely used encrypted messaging service.

Details: It's the Open Technology Fund's purse that advocates of UltraSurf and Freegate, tools developed and supported by Falun Gong affiliates, hope will now open up.

  • UltraSurf and Freegate are internet censorship circumvention tools that some users in China and other authoritarian regimes have long used to gain access to censored websites.
  • The Broadcasting Board of Governors, USAGM's predecessor, previously directed funding to UltraSurf, but stopped after UltraSurf's developers refused to comply with an independent security audit, part of the fund's mandatory process for all its funding recipients.
  • Christian and religious liberty groups in the U.S. have helped promote UltraSurf to U.S. politicians, arguing that Christians and other persecuted religious groups in China, including the Falun Gong, need it in order to access the unfettered internet.

Among UltraSurf's strongest backers are Katrina Lantos Swett of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice and Michael Horowitz, who formerly directed the Project for International Religious Liberty at the Hudson Institute.

  • Horowitz, who has promoted UltraSurf for over a decade, appeared on Bannon's radio show "War Room" one week before the USAGM dismissals and called on Liu to be fired. Bannon repeated her name and appeared to write it down while on air.
  • Swett has repeatedly called for the Open Technology Fund to redirect millions of dollars to support UltraSurf and Freegate.

What they're saying: Both Swett and Horowitz have cast UltraSurf and similar programs as tools that could potentially tear down the Great Firewall, China's system of internet censorship, and perhaps even topple the Chinese Communist Party itself.

  • "We believe that the great firewall of China is the Berlin Wall of our time," Swett told Axios in an interview, adding that Beijing censors the internet out of the belief that "their current repressive autocratic system cannot survive freedom."

But, but, but: It's not that simple, say experts in internet privacy and censorship circumvention.

  • China's internet censorship is advanced and well-funded, and no single tool, or even type of tool, is sufficient to meet the many different needs of users behind the Great Firewall, a person familiar with censorship circumvention tools told Axios.
  • That's why the Open Technology Fund has sought to fund research and development to create new technologies that could be widely adopted by many tool developers, rather than pouring the bulk of its funding into a single tool.

Background: The Falun Gong is heavily persecuted in China but has flourished outside of China's borders, operating a global media empire that includes the Epoch Times.

  • In recent years, the Epoch Times has thrown its support behind the far-right agendas of ascendant populist, anti-immigrant parties in the U.S. and Europe.
  • It is now recognized as a part of the pro-Trump alternative media ecosystem.

The bottom line: A far-right take-over of an independent U.S. government agency may allow once-fringe ideas promulgated by a controversial religious group to become official policy.

Editor's note: This post has been corrected to reflect that it was the Broadcasting Board of Governors that previously directed funding to UltraSurf (not the Open Technology Fund).

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