Digital Directions: October 13, 2022

Insights on the evolving relationships among digital technologies, information integrity, and democracy from the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy.


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  • Authoritarian aspirations for cyber sovereignty clash with democratic norms of a rights-respecting digital environment;
  • Digital rights advocates have created tools to protect information integrity as the spread of disinformation evolves in new ways;
  • Beijing and Moscow advance digital authoritarianism through surveillance and digital repression.

What Russia’s Cyber Sovereignty Woes Tell Us About a Future “Splinternet” // October 13

by Elizabeth Kerley, Program Officer, International Forum for Democratic Studies

Since launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia has been putting its longstanding aspirations for “cyber sovereignty” to the test. In keeping with its longstanding objectives of “technological independence and information control,” the Kremlin has promoted homegrown tech in the face of sanctions while also halting the flow of independent information. Meanwhile this April, 61 mostly democratic countries signed a declaration articulating a vision for an internet that is “open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure.” What does this clash of visions portend for the digital domain?

In recent years, legal and technological innovations have eased the path for authoritarians seeking the benefits of connectivity without the risk of critical speech that might challenge their power. Moscow’s current efforts—particularly its use of newly installed deep packet inspection (DPI) tools for internet traffic filtering to block Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—reflect these growing dangers. These trends have led some analysts to anticipate (or simply announce) the emergence of a “splinternet” fragmented along lines of state control. Yet as Jason Pielemeier of the Global Network Initiative and Chris Riley at the Annenberg Public Policy Center argue, there are still ways in which the open internet can make a positive difference for people living in closed and semi-closed societies. In addition to the practical difficulty of turning open networks into closed ones, transnational coalitions in support of digital rights can influence actors key to shaping the global balance: tech companies, democratic governments, and “swing states.”

First, achieving cyber sovereignty as envisioned by autocrats is less technologically simple than they might hope. The original model for this approach, China’s “networked authoritarianism,” relies on centralized network infrastructure as well as a flourishing domestic ecosystem of digital services. Regimes seeking to shift to this model “mid-game,” after years of following a different, more open pathway of digital development, have encountered challenges. Russia has struggled to promote RuTube as an alternative to Google’s popular video sharing platform, and sanctions have left Russian companies struggling to acquire chips and other key components. Meanwhile tools such as Tor continue to offer interested Russians an opportunity to circumvent information controls. In another illustration of the practical difficulties with cyber sovereignty, Cambodia postponed in February its establishment of a National Internet Gateway (which would route traffic through a government-managed portal), apparently due in part to technical obstacles.

Second, given the challenges of developing a purely homegrown digital ecosystem, most digital authoritarians rely on extorting the cooperation of Western tech companies to a much greater degree than the CCP has done. This reliance on foreign companies in democracies means that robust transnational support for human rights online can make a difference. If digital rights issues stay in the spotlight, private companies based in democracies may be less inclined than they have hitherto been to help resolve the “digital dictator’s dilemma.” Public scrutiny of instances like Finnish mobile maker Nokia’s technical support for Russian telecoms surveillance and Facebook’s complicity with government censorship demands in Vietnam could make other companies hesitate before complying with autocrats who hope to have their digital cake and repress it, too.

Finally, as Alex Engler notes, public commitments to norms like the Declaration for the Future of the Internet could help to “warn off wavering democracies from internet transgressions.”  The ongoing scandals regarding use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware are only one of many examples showing why such norms are needed even in established democracies. But clear statements of principles may also influence the trajectory of “swing states” in global tech governance debates. From Brazil to India to Mauritius, struggling democracies are weighing new regulations related to content moderation, data protection, and internet traffic filtering that will shape the digital environment for critical speech. As autocrats seek to craft a brave new digital world in their image, robust transnational norms in favor of rights-respecting and accessible technological ecosystems remain key.

The chinese communist party’s global influence

Per a new, wide-ranging Freedom House study with 30 country case studies, China uses intimidation, targeted disinformation campaigns, and censorship to mold international opinions in its favor. In Latin America, for example, analysts have seen a sharp increase in PRC-sourced disinformation through Spanish-language social media platforms. In the U.S., Beijing peddles propaganda and disinformation on WeChat to the Chinese diaspora. Despite the size and scope of these information operations, their influence remains uneven, and any solution requires a much more coordinated response.  

exposing disinformation tactics

On YouTube, “disinformation entrepreneursare taking advantage of the war in Ukraine to spread false information and potentially profit from these videos. As social media platforms have rampedup efforts to tackle disinformation, information operations via text message have become more popular yet difficult to track and regulate. The public has been aware of Beijing’s efforts to leverage TikTok to censor videos that criticize the Chinese government. A new study reported that 20% of search results on the popular app contained misinformationand that users increasingly use the app as a search engine for news 

tools for protecting information integrity

2021 Nobel Prize laureates Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov presented a 10-point plan for democracies, the UN, and the EU that could address the global information crisis. Recommendations include ending the surveillance-based business model, protecting human rights online, and rebuilding independent journalism. A new guide by the Thomson Reuters Foundation provides advice for journalists and news organizations to better understand how Russia’s new “fake news laws work and how they can have a global impact as well. Foreign journalists working within or outside of Russia may be charged for disseminating information that the Kremlin deems to be false. 

understanding digital authoritarianism

A white paper authored by Jessica Brandt for the MIGS Institute builds on roundtable discussions and interviews to survey the ever-shifting landscape of digital authoritarian practices, including mass surveillance, cyberattacks, digital censorship, and information operations. The report claims that Beijing and Moscow increasingly coordinate and replicate each other’s tactics. Writing for the Atlantic Council, Kenton Thibaut observes that Beijing’s efforts to promote its “cyber sovereignty” model in global standard-setting bodies and the market for digital infrastructure are a part of the PRC’s broader quest for “discourse power.” 

exposing prc surveillance

The CCP has developed a new governance model relying on digital surveillance, according to a new book by Wall Street Journal reporters Josh Chin and Liza Lin. While the collection and use of digital data offers increased convenience for some—for instance, by easing traffic in urban centers—the PRC government also harnesses data to control and engineer society without allowing civic participation or respecting privacy. China’s AI-powered tools include facial recognition, predictive policing, and the world’s largest forensic DNA database. A new Citizen Lab report investigates the CCP regime’s mass collection in Tibet of DNA from citizens, a tactic also used in Xinjiang 

A Cold War in digital governance?

Tate Ryan-Mosley in MIT Tech Review explored the proliferation of digital repression among members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a China- and Russia-led body in Central and South Asia. China uses the SCO and other international platforms to promote its digital exports, from surveillance tools to AI-powered “data brains” that integrate and analyze financial information. While this analysis and others warn of a brewing “cold war” in the digital domain, a recent Carnegie Endowment report on India and South Korea contends that digital approaches are emerging which follow neither Western nor PRC models. 

In a new web feature, the Forum asked six leading experts—Nury Turkel, Alexander Dukalskis, Xiao Qiang, Nate Schenkkan, Greg Walton, and Maya Wang—the following question: “How Has Beijing Suppressed and Influenced International Responses to its Repression of Uyghurs in China and Abroad?” This publication follows a public discussion hosted by the Forum with Nury Turkel (Hudson Institute), centered around his book on China’s campaign of transnational repression and discourse control against the Uyghur community, available here. 

A new Center for International Media Assistance blog post by Daniel Aragort, “The Reality of Digital Authoritarianism in Venezuela,” discusses the growing scale of digital surveillance in the country, and how civil society can take measures to protect itself and fight back. 

This summer, NDI’s Democracy and Technology team published a white paper entitled “Influencing the Internet: Democratizing the Politics that Shape Internet Governance Norms and Standards,” which explores barriers to civil society participation in internet governance bodies. 

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