Digital Directions: September 2023

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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China’s Tech-Enhanced Authoritarianism 

by Dr. Samantha Hoffman, Senior Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

This Big Story was adapted from Samantha Hoffman’s contribution to the new book,Defending Democracy in an Age of Sharp Power.

Emerging technologies offer numerous conveniences and capabilities, benefitting consumers and governments alike; however, they also carry inherent risks that can threaten liberal democracies when leveraged by powerful dictatorships seeking to reinforce and spread their authoritarianism.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) leverages emerging technologies to undercut democracies’ stability and legitimacy, while expanding its own influence. Beijing exerts “sharp power” that enables it to limit access to information, distort political environments, and undertake censorship and surveillance. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) aim is to shape, manage, and control the international environment so that public sentiment is—or is seen to be—favorable to its interests (that is, the party’s interests, not simply China’s or the Chinese people’s interests). This goal is driven by the CCP’s concept of “state security.” Its scope encapsulates a range of whole-of-society activities designed to protect the CCP against the extensive threats that it perceives, regardless of state borders and especially in the realms of ideology and politics.

The CCP’s use of technology to expand its power and influence is best described as “tech-enhanced authoritarianism.” Rather than creating fundamentally new ways of controlling populations, technology augments the party’s standard methods of exercising authoritarian dominance. The global repercussions of the PRC’s tech-enhanced authoritarianism so far have been vastly underestimated, as analysts tend to focus mostly on overt coercion and direct surveillance while overlooking how Beijing uses technologies designed for solving everyday problems and providing public services to expand its power.

China’s development and global export of “smart cities” technology reveals the character of its tech-enhanced sharp power and authoritarianism. The CCP uses these technologies to monitor their populace and control society. It does not clearly distinguish basic public goods, for example traffic safety or the prevention of violent crime, from the authoritarian suppression of pluralism and dissent. The party-state blends the two together, prioritizing regime security over essential rights. Furthermore, governments worldwide are often eager to adopt smart cities technologies, and the implications of reliance on such PRC-based, globally applicable surveillance systems are serious.

Beijing also takes an active role in international standards-setting for emerging technologies. Participation in the development and design of such technologies enables the CCP to exploit emerging technologies to enhance sharp power capabilities. For instance, the China Standards 2035 plan calls for the global export of PRC standards for emerging technologies, and for PRC standards to be accepted through international standards-setting bodies. If PRC-originated technical standards are adopted internationally, PRC-made systems will enjoy greater interoperability and market access around the world, with implications for democratic integrity.

For policymakers, researchers, and civil society alike, it is crucial to develop a sophisticated country-specific understanding of how state actors—including the CCP—project sharp power using new technologies. States act differently depending on their interests and goals, and the impact of tech-enabled sharp power will vary. Although “country-agnostic” policy approaches to decision-making may feel more objective, they often obscure important realities by poorly defining the nature of the problem. Varying intentions among authoritarian actors also affect different issue areas and require distinct responses.

At the same time, liberal democracies must clearly explain to their citizens why China’s tech-enhanced authoritarianism is a direct and major threat that, among other things, undermines individual autonomy and freedom of expression. Liberal democracies must also be clear about why the alternative they offer is better. They should define and promote liberal-democratic values and invest heavily in protecting them. 

Proposed UN Cybercrime Treaty Threatens to be an Expansive Global Surveillance Pact

The Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that the proposed UN Cybercrime Treaty, which is currently being drafted by the Ad Hoc Committee on Cybercrime, would permit intrusive forms of data collection like real-time traffic monitoring to investigate those involved in broadly scoped “serious crimes.” The ambiguous language and lack of safeguards in the draft document create opportunities for authoritarian states to exploit the treaty by compelling governments to share information on civic actors. Read the full analysis by EFF here.

The AI Revolution is Coming for Latin America. Is It Ready? 

International Republican Institute authors Antonio Garrastazu and Beatriz de Anta advocate for Latin American democracies to coordinate a regional AI strategy to prevent the technology’s abuse and accelerate the positive adoption of AI. The Venezuelan government has already employed AI to spread confusion and disinformation by generating English-speaking avatar newscasters that spread state propaganda, providing an example for like-minded regional authoritarian regimes to follow. Existing initiatives such as the Alliance for Democratic Development, established by Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Ecuador, are positioned to lead this effort. Read the full article in Americas Quarterly here.

Assessing India’s Digital Personal Data Protection Bill 

In a recent episode of Tech Policy Press’ The Sunday Show, host Justin Hendrix and his guests Aditi Agrawal, Kamesh Shekar, and Prateek Waghre discuss the passage of India’s long awaited Digital Personal Data Protection Act. Journalists and digital rights experts expressed concern with sweeping exemptions in the legislation that allow government agencies to collect data on citizens in the interest of national security, which together with other recent regulatory moves point toward a significant expansion of the government’s jurisdiction online. Listen to the full podcast from Tech Policy Press here.

Chinese Discourse Power: Capabilities and Impact 

The report by the Digital Forensics Research Lab examines PRC efforts to gain and exert discourse power through a frame of “media convergence.” Although the results of Chinese influence operations in the Global South are mixed, China’s party-state has excelled at leveraging big data to design targeted information operations and shaping the direction of international standards-setting bodies like the International Telecommunications Union. According to report author Kenton Thibaut, to combat the emerging alternative order in the Global South, democratic actors must understand the ecosystem that China has created and demonstrate the benefits of a democratic approach to technological governance. Read the full report from DFRLab here.

Rosatom, the Russian nuclear agency, and its information strategy to win bids in Latin America 

This investigative report by the Latin American Center for Journalistic Research (CLIP) highlights the tactics deployed by Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear energy company, to curry favor among governments and the public in order to secure natural resource contracts. These tactics include hiring external political consultants to covertly campaign for former president Evo Morales in Bolivia and planting misleading editorials in Bolivian media outlets. The energy company’s political involvement demonstrates its role as a conduit for Moscow’s influence in Latin American politics and media spaces. Read the full report from CLIP here.

Defending Democracy in an Age of Sharp Power 

Read the new Journal of Democracy book, Defending Democracy in an Age of Sharp Power, which explores how authoritarian regimes are deploying “sharp power” to undermine democracies from within by weaponizing universities, institutions, media, technology, and entertainment. The book highlights technology’s role in eroding the pillars of democratic societies through analyses like Sarah Cook’s “Countering Beijing’s Media Manipulation” and Samantha Hoffman’s “Tech Enhanced Authoritarianism,” which is featured as the Big Story above. Purchase the book here.

Taiwan on the Frontline of China’s Information Operations 

Former Reagan-Fascell fellow Ko Shu-ling highlights the scale of the PRC’s influence on Taiwan’s political discourse and outlines the various civil society, private sector, and government responses to counter malign information operations. Read the full blog post on Power 3.0 here.

Chilling Legislation: Tracking the Impact of “Fake News” Laws on Press Freedom Internationally 

According to this new report published by the Center for International Media Assistance at the NED, authoritarian states are increasing their use of misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information (MDM) laws to target civic actors. These laws limit freedom of expression by claiming to protect the integrity of the information space and often result in excessive fines, imprisonment, content controls and corrections, or onerous administrative requirements. Read the full report from CIMA here.

Don’t let China and Russia export digital censorship 

New research from the International Republican Institute and AidData indicates that digital censorship is on the rise, with Russia and China serving as role models and resources for increasingly authoritarian states. The authors outline several tactics, including initiating a set of common international standards on digital and internet governance, for democracies to implement. Read the full article from The Hill here.

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