Deadline: 9 November, 2018.

A. Project Description

The U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) announces an open competition for organizations interested in submitting applications for long-term development, core support, outreach, and implementation of censorship-defeating pluggable transports (PTs). In support of the U.S. government’s policy to “promote an open, interoperable, reliable, and secure internet that fosters efficiency, innovation, communication, and economic prosperity, while respecting privacy and guarding against disruption, fraud, and theft,” as described in E.O. 13800, DRL supports the development of anti-censorship technologies, including the libraries of interchangeable transport-layer obfuscation protocols known as pluggable transports. DRL invites organizations interested in potential funding to submit proposals outlining program concepts that reflect this goal.

Priority Regions:

Global, with a focus on Internet repressive environments.

Project Objectives:

Online censorship has increased dramatically over the last five years. According to Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net report, two-thirds of the world’s Internet users now live in a country where the Internet is censored or restricted.[1] As a result, many human rights defenders, civil society actors, and vulnerable and at-risk populations have come to rely on anti-censorship technologies to access the global Internet. These tools have become essential resources for individuals living in repressive environments to exercise their human rights online and access information, associate, and communicate freely.

As more regimes deploy network censorship technology, the arms race of protocol blocking versus new protocol innovation is escalating. Many tools exist to circumvent online censorship, but they must improve and develop more quickly to successfully counter new censorship techniques as well as adapt to the network management policies of large commercial networks on which they depend. Pluggable transports have been created in response to these challenges. These interchangeable components can be used by a variety of communication tools, and can be updated and implemented in response to acute censorship events. They allow anti-censorship platforms to more easily share technical solutions, more quickly respond to censorship events, and reduce overall costs.

In order to ensure that civil society actors and vulnerable and at-risk populations continue to have access to these critical resources, DRL is seeking proposals for a multi-year program to expand the existing open-source pluggable transports library, provide support for emerging and innovative pluggable transports, engage in outreach to support the implementation of open-source transports into a variety of communication tools that are vulnerable to blocking by censorious regimes, and provide ongoing measurement and testing to determine the effectiveness of transports in different censorship environments. Programs should provide civil society actors and vulnerable and at-risk populations around the world with long-term, reliable, uncensored access to the global Internet.

Program proposals should include the following components:

1. A small grants program to support the completion and release of anti-censorship PTs nearing readiness for wider use and seed the development of innovative and experimental PTs at earlier stages of development, with the goal of significantly increasing the library of open-source anti-censorship technologies available. PTs supported should be open source, work in a wide variety of contexts, and conform to existing implementation standards.

2. Maintenance and development of products and resources that promote the use of PTs and lower obstacles to adoption, such as the existing open-source PT specification and reference implementation.

3. A comprehensive outreach program to encourage adoption and integration of PTs into existing tools and platforms, such as commercial VPNs.

4. Ongoing community-building activities for the developers of open-source PTs, including regular convenings and events to promote collaboration, encourage a community-driven approach to goal- and standard-setting, and share innovation.

5. Testing and evaluation processes in order to determine and substantiate the effectiveness of anti-censorship protocols and their technical strategies, evaluating factors such as connection rates, detectability, and speed. This should include integration into existing testing frameworks and initiatives.

6. Continuation of existing work to promote the integration of PTs onto mobile platforms, addressing obstacles such as memory limits on mobile operating systems.

Key Program Considerations:

This list of considerations is provided as a guide to help applicants develop responsive, robust program strategies.

  • Preference will be given to open source technologies with practical deployment and sustainability plans. These technologies are inherently more transparent and re-usable.
  • Consistent with DRL’s venture-capital style approach to Internet freedom, projects should have a model for long-term sustainability beyond the life of the grant.
  • DRL encourages applicants to foster collaborative partnerships, especially with organizations that can best implement key elements of the program plan. Where appropriate, applicants are invited to form consortia for submitting a combined proposal, but the primary organization that will conduct and implement the small grants program must be the lead (“prime”) applicant.
  • DRL strives to ensure its programs advance the rights and uphold the dignity of the most at-risk and vulnerable populations.

Projects should aim to have impact that leads to democratic reforms, and should have the potential for sustainability beyond DRL resources. DRL’s preference is to avoid duplicating past efforts by supporting new and creative approaches. This does not exclude from consideration projects that improve upon or expand existing successful projects in a new and complementary way.

To maximize the impact and sustainability of the award(s) that result(s) from this NOFO, DRL reserves the right to execute a non-competitive continuation amendment(s). Any non-competitive continuation is contingent on performance and availability of funds. A non-competitive continuation is not guaranteed; the Department of State reserves the right to exercise or not exercise the option to issue non-competitive continuation amendment(s).

DRL may ask successful applicant(s) to incorporate coordination of an implementer and stakeholder meeting into the Scope of Work of the final project. DRL will discuss this possibility with particular applicant(s) during the proposal negotiation phase.

B. Federal Award Information

DRL anticipates having approximately $2,000,000 of Democracy Fund/Human Rights Democracy Fund (DF/HRDF) funds available to support approximately one successful application submitted in response to this NOFO, subject to the availability of funding. Primary organizations can submit one application in response to the NOFO. The proposed period of performance may span multiple years as appropriate, but should include a start date as soon as possible.

The U.S. government may (a) reject any or all applications, (b) accept other than the lowest cost application, (c) accept more than one application, and (d) waive informalities and minor irregularities in applications received.

The U.S. government may make award(s) on the basis of initial applications received, without discussions or negotiations. Therefore, each initial application should contain the applicant’s best terms from a cost and technical standpoint. The U.S. government reserves the right (though it is not under obligation to do so), however, to enter into discussions with one or more applicants in order to obtain clarifications, additional detail, or to suggest refinements in the project description, budget, or other aspects of an application.

DRL anticipates awarding either a grant or cooperative agreement depending on the needs and risk factors of the program. The final determination on mechanism will be made by the Grants Officer. The distinction between grants and cooperative agreements revolves around the existence of “substantial involvement.” Cooperative agreements require greater Federal government participation in the project. If a cooperative agreement is awarded, DRL will undertake reasonable and programmatically necessary substantial involvement. Examples of substantial involvement can include, but are not limited to:

1) Active participation or collaboration with the recipient in the implementation of the award.

2) Review and approval of one stage of work before another can begin.

3) Review and approval of substantive provisions of proposed subawards or contracts.

4) Approval of the recipient’s budget or plan of work prior to the award.

The authority for this funding opportunity is found in the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, as amended (FAA).


C. Eligibility Information

DRL welcomes applications from U.S.-based and foreign-based non-profit organizations/nongovernment organizations (NGO) and public international organizations; private, public, or state institutions of higher education; and for-profit organizations or businesses. DRL’s preference is to work with non-profit entities; however, there may be some occasions when a for-profit entity is best suited.

Applications submitted by for-profit entities may be subject to additional review following the panel selection process. Additionally, the Department of State generally prohibits profit to for-profit or commercial organizations under its assistance awards. Profit is defined as any amount in excess of allowable direct and indirect costs. The allowability of costs incurred by commercial organizations is determined in accordance with the provisions of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) at 48 CFR 30, Cost Accounting Standards Administration, and 48 CFR 31 Contract Cost Principles and Procedures.

Deadline for application is 9 November, 2018.

For more information and to apply, click here.

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