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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).

Go deeper

Aug 31, 2020 - Politics & Policy

VOA journalists say new USAGM CEO is endangering reporters

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A group of veteran Voice of America journalists penned a letter to VOA acting director Elez Biberaj saying that Michael Pack, the new CEO of VOA's parent agency, the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), is endangering the livelihoods of contract journalists.

Why it matters: Pack has been the center of controversy ever since he took over the agency in June. The letter alleges that Pack's recent remarks in an interview with the conservative-leaning website The Federalist prove his malicious intent.

5 hours ago - Health

FDA advisory panel recommends Pfizer boosters for those 65 and older

A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the Key Biscayne Community Center on Aug. 24, 2021. Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A key Food and Drug Administration advisory panel on Friday overwhelmingly voted against recommending Pfizer vaccine booster shots for younger Americans, but unanimously recommended approving the third shots for individuals 65 and older, as well as those at high-risk of severe COVID-19.

Why it matters: While the votes are non-binding, and the FDA must still make a final decision, Friday's move pours cold water on the Biden administration's plan to begin administering boosters to most individuals who received the Pfizer vaccine later this month.

5 hours ago - World

France recalls ambassadors from U.S. and Australia over submarine deal

Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L), French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (C), and French ambassador to the U.S. Philippe Etienne. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

France has taken the extraordinary step of recalling its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia after both countries blindsided their French allies with a new military pact and submarine contract, the French Foreign Ministry announced on Friday.

The backstory: While sealing an agreement with the U.S. and U.K. to acquire nuclear submarines, Australia ripped up an existing $90 billion submarine deal with France. That led senior French officials to accuse the U.S. of a "stab in the back."