Can Democracy Survive the “Splinternet?”
Autocracies have learned to use the internet for their own purposes. Can we stop them?
Joe Biden has been President for seven months. He has pledged to restore America’s moral authority and elevate issues of democracy and human rights (although America’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan has caused some to question Biden’s democracy commitment). But it is less evident how robustly the Biden Administration intends to confront the impact of digital technology on politics and governance—including the growing use of digital tools by autocrats to maintain power.
One clear and troubling pattern is the determination by even more or less democratic governments to exert increased control over the internet within their jurisdictions, creating a kind of “splinternet.” The digital rights organization Access Now reports that India currently holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s leader in government-instigated internet shutdowns, with at least 109 of them in 2020 alone. Moreover, the Indian government has expanded its efforts to launch a “wave of digital censorship and intimidation.” In May, after Twitter put a “manipulated media” label on a tweet by an official of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, a special unit of the Delhi police raided Twitter’s offices in Delhi and Gurgaon. India’s Minister of Electronics and Information Technology—a Wharton MBA, no less—then threatened to strip Twitter’s safe harbor protections and leave it liable for all content on the platform.
It’s not just Twitter: Facebook, Amazon, and Google have also faced heightened scrutiny from Indian regulators. And it’s not just India: The Nigerian government suspended Twitter’s operations in that country after Twitter removed a tweet by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on grounds that it constituted “abusive behavior.” New social media and internet restrictions have also cropped up in Turkey, Uganda, Indonesia, and Brazil.
In order to push back effectively against this trend, President Biden will have to do a better job harmonizing U.S. policy with that of the EU. True, he can accomplish part of this task simply by not being Donald Trump—who undercut the transatlantic and liberal democratic consensus in many areas, tech regulation among them. In response, the EU began to forge an independent path on issues like data privacy, dual-use export controls, artificial intelligence, and platform accountability. In part, the Europeans’ independence reflected differing views about the proper balance between markets and regulation, privacy and transparency. It also reflected, however, the sense that America was unwilling or unable to tackle basic policy reforms.
The democracies now appear to be closing ranks. In the G7 Summit Communiqué of June 13, the signatories affirmed their commitment to a “trusted, values-driven digital ecosystem” and an “open, interoperable, reliable and secure internet;” more, they explicitly opposed state-imposed internet shutdowns and restrictions. On June 15 the EU and the United States announced the creation of a trade and technology council to strengthen cooperation around digital issues from data governance to threats to “security and human rights.”
We will now see whether the democracies, including ours, can match their promising rhetoric with meaningful action.
Meeting the authoritarian challenges of China and Russia will present much steeper challenges. In particular, the Biden Administration will have to answer three fundamental questions. First, how will the administration balance the goal of confronting digital authoritarianism with the more general goal of countering China? The administration’s interim national security guidance and a raft of China-related Executive Orders have made clear that Biden is committed to pushing back against Chinese aggression, particularly actions that threaten a “stable and open international order.” The administration has also stated its commitment to countering authoritarian uses of technology that undermine rights, empower autocratic leaders, and reinforce repressive objectives.
Many experts merge the two objectives, arguing that China’s export of advanced surveillance and censorship tools enables state repression, aligns countries closer to China’s authoritarian model, and fosters economic and political dependencies on China. But pinpointing the Chinese government as the leading driver of digital authoritarianism in other countries overstates the case.
For one thing, China isn’t the only country exporting advanced technology to authoritarian regimes that then use it for repressive purposes. U.S., European, and Israeli companies, for example, are also major sources of digital repression technology. Firms based in democracies supply spyware for targeted surveillance (e.g., Israel’s NSO Group and Cellebrite), predictive policing tools used by human rights-abusing regimes (e.g., Oracle’s Endeca software, used in China), and censorship capabilities used by autocratic leaders (e.g., Sandvine’s censorship tools, used in Jordan, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Algeria). Given this deep involvement by Western firms, the United States should seriously consider adopting export controls for dual-use technologies—which, as of February 2021, the EU has done.
In addition, focusing primarily on China as the instigator of digital authoritarianism fails to account for unique country-level dynamics. Rather than China simply pushing advanced technologies on recipient governments, there is a much more complicated interaction at play. As Matthew Erie and Thomas Streinz have written in a forthcoming Journal of International Law and Politics article, individual governments exercise significant bargaining power in determining which technologies are best suited for their political needs and their budgets, and whether Chinese technology—as opposed to Russian, U.S., or Israeli equipment—offers the greatest advantages. Indeed, most autocratic regimes deliberately source from a variety of suppliers to leverage better deals and avoid dependence on a single country.
Finally, the underlying premise to countering digital authoritarianism is to apply pressure against specific autocratic leaders; but pushing back against Chinese influence requires using a wide variety of tactics, such as partnering, when necessary, with some of the same autocratic leaders. While the United States can certainly pursue both objectives, it is less clear that we can effectively do both at the same time. Is the goal to rein in China’s influence or to stem authoritarianism? It is not yet clear whether Biden’s team has internalized these trade-offs.
A second question is whether Biden will make digital tech policy a major democracy and human rights goal. Certain issues, like combatting corruption, have clearly risen to the top of Biden’s priority list: the White House has publicly said that it will tackle corruption as a “core U.S. national security interest.” Where digital tech policy sits is less clear. How prominently, for instance, will digital tech issues feature in Biden’s announced Summit for Democracy? The summit offers a rare opportunity for democracies to develop a shared global vision of the way democratic societies should govern digital technology, from writing new guidelines for emerging technologies to addressing disagreements among democracies about existing tech regulations.
Generating consensus won’t be easy; the United States has often stood on the wrong side of these issues, particularly with respect to data privacy and surveillance. Yet it is hard to imagine a serious democracy summit that does not include prominent discussions about digital technology’s impact on the future of democracy.
A related issue is whether the United States will hold other democracies accountable for digital rights abuses and internet freedom violations. So far, the early results are mixed. At the June G7 Summit, for example, an “Open Societies Statement” was issued that includes the signatures of four non-G7 countries: India, South Korea, Australia, and South Africa. The document condemns government-ordered internet shutdowns but includes unusual modifying language, more specifically denouncing “politically motivated” shutdowns rather than all government-ordered internet disruptions.
What’s the back story? According to reporting in The Wire, “India pushed to dilute the language related to Internet shutdowns, saying shutdowns are sometimes necessary for maintaining ‘law and order’ and combatting communal violence.” In other words, India fought to have it both ways—get on the record opposing internet shutdowns, while leaving enough loopholes to justify ongoing authorizations of “law and order” shutdowns. These compromises matter. They raise concerns about what other concessions may be in store.
A third question for the Biden Administration is how committed it is to tackling digital technology problems at home. For the United States to credibly lead a global push on digital tech policy, it must get its domestic house in order. An initial area of focus should be on platform accountability and transparency. One basic issue is straightforward: Online political disinformation, conspiratorial content, and violent incitement are undermining U.S. democracy, and there are few regulatory options presently available for checking their spread. A starting point would be requiring private online platforms like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to provide more algorithmic transparency and reduce the role of exploitative social media feeds that promote polarized content.
More ambitiously, Congress could make a good-faith effort to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to strike a better balance between safeguarding Big Tech firms from liability while influencing them to reduce the reach and amplification of harmful content (though this latter goal presupposes a modicum of political consensus, which appears out of reach at the moment). A less ambitious step would be to establish a bipartisan disinformation and hate-speech task force to evaluate the extent of America’s online dysfunction and recommend concrete steps to clean up the mess.
Another area of focus would be to devise guidelines for the responsible use of emerging technologies like facial recognition. A new report from the General Accountability Office finds that U.S. law enforcement agencies heavily rely on facial recognition technology, including technology from controversial vendors like Clearview AI, without applying consistent rules or privacy protections. This practice should be unacceptable to the Biden Administration. It should consider adopting a simple rule about digital surveillance tools: “Technology known to contain structural flaws or biases should not be used for any decisions that meaningfully affect people’s lives until those issues are rectified.”
In practical terms, this means that law enforcement agencies should stop using predictive policing algorithms that have known biases; government agencies should stop using facial recognition technologies until companies prove those products will not lead to excessive false positive rates for minority groups; and police reliance on social media surveillance should pause until Congress provides clear guidelines about what content should be available now and what content needs legal approval. There is a pressing need for law and policy to catch up to the deployment of these new technologies.
Last, it is high time that the United States establish consistent rules about personal data protection and privacy. While lawmakers have generally tended to let innovation flourish before regulating conduct, the lag between technological innovation and privacy protections has brought about increasingly bad outcomes (including an entire industry based on exploiting and monetizing personal data). The longer policymakers defer tackling digital privacy regulations, the more deeply invasive practices will become entrenched in our digital infrastructure and the harder it will be to devise useful solutions.
These reforms would not only improve America’s digital environment, but would also help America avoid being seen as hypocritical or “exceptional” as it tries to persuade the rest of the world to confront digital repression. Biden’s actions in the coming months will show how seriously the administration intends to incorporate digital technology issues into its domestic and foreign policy agenda.
Steven Feldstein is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s democracy, conflict, and governance program. He is author of The Rise of Digital Repression: How Technology is Reshaping Power, Politics, and Resistance (2021).
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