16 December 2023

New Digital Dilemmas: Resisting Autocrats, Navigating Geopolitics, Confronting Platforms


Across the globe, the struggle between rights and repression persists. Digital technology remains at the center of these contests. Governments continue to use censorship strategies, mass surveillance measures, disinformation campaigns, and internet shutdowns to counter political protests, rig elections, and consolidate military coups. The 2023 Freedom on the Net report reflected this, indicating thirteen consecutive years of global internet freedom declines.

Despite these challenges, citizens continue to devise creative ways to use digital tools to mobilize demonstrations, circumvent information controls, and deter electoral manipulation. Although in many countries it is hard to escape the impression that the balance of digital technology weighs in favor of the forces of repression, at least several countries experienced positive changes in 2023. Protesters spurred a change in government in Sri Lanka; soon after, authorities lifted widespread social media and communications blocks. In Gambia, online expression is blossoming as the country gets further away from the two-decade rule of deposed strongman Yahya Jammeh. And in Georgia, online mobilization against a bill that would have forced civil society groups to register as “agents of foreign influence” prompted tens of thousands of demonstrators to descend on the capital and brought about a decisive legislative defeat of the measure.

The digital rights and policy landscape is increasingly entangled by other issues as well. One area of concern is the fraught relationship between large tech companies on the one hand and human rights and transparency concerns on the other. Platforms such as Facebook, Google, Instagram, TikTok, X (formerly Twitter), WhatsApp, and YouTube hold inordinate power to determine what users see, what content will be amplified, and what will be taken down. Platforms make these decisions largely behind closed doors, providing little insight into their reasoning.

A major inconsistency regards how to handle harmful content—for example, hate speech or harassment—that is protected under the law but can still lead to significant damage (because of the volume, scale, and speed of dissemination). Modern legal systems did not anticipate that volume and speed could or should render speech illegal, and it is unclear whether changing free speech protections based on these factors is sensible. Yet there is little doubt that the viral spreading of falsehoods, propaganda, and harassing speech has deeply wounded the world’s democracies and undermined public trust.

Another area of tension relates to the growing impact of geopolitics on technology. Many experts contend that the world is increasingly fragmenting into contesting spheres of influence. In a new book, Anu Bradford argues that the globe is separating into three “digital empires” led by the United States, China, and Europe, with “each advancing a competing vision for the global digital economy while attempting to expand its sphere of influence in the digital world.” This dynamic is manifesting in competing regulatory approaches and differing market incentives—threatening to permanently split technological innovation. As new technologies, such as generative AI, establish themselves, these challenges will grow. Foundational AI models have tremendous power to shape discourse and influence democratic deliberation, as well as provide new tools for authoritarians to enhance surveillance and disseminate propaganda. So while global consensus frays, there remains a pressing need for governments to develop common understandings around norms, institutions, and approaches.

This latest collection from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Digital Democracy Network, building on a volume of essays by the network in 2021, probes four crosscutting themes: digital repression shifts, the interaction between tech platforms and digital rights, digital sovereignty, and the implications of technology on geopolitics and governance.

First, authors explore how digital repression is shifting in different regions. Mahsa Alimardani’s article describes how Iranian authorities are “aggressively changing their digital repression strategy” in ways that will alter the next decade of information and communications in the country. She argues that since the outbreak of the Jhina (Mahsa) Amini protests, the state has further adapted and mobilized its repression tactics, such as blocking popular platforms, disabling VPNs, flooding content onto sites to distract users, forcing the release of user data from platforms, and relying on biometric surveillance.

Afef Abrougui examines how political leaders in the Middle East and North Africa have “weaponized identity narratives” for political gain using online propaganda, misinformation, and conspiracy theories. Abrougui uses Tunisia as a case study to illustrate how the state is deploying racial stereotypes and hate speech against migrants to distract and defuse from its political crisis.

On a more hopeful note, Janjira Sombatpoonsiri describes how civil society groups in Southeast Asia are organizing to counter government repression. She identifies three emerging strategies: using protests and legal action to pressure governments, engaging in cross-regional knowledge-building activities, and forming alliances with domestic policymakers and cross-border civic networks.

The second theme relates to digital sovereignty. This concept has gained attention in relation to China’s cyber sovereignty push, in which its leaders argue that the state has the right to “choose its own internet development path, its own internet management model, and its own public policies on the internet.” Many experts criticize China’s stance as a thinly veiled attempt to impose oppressive policies on its citizens and promote authoritarian norms abroad. However, both Arindrajit Basu and Iginio Gagliardone offer slightly different perspectives.

Basu contends that digital sovereignty can be a positive force for countries. He details how anxieties about digital sovereignty are rooted in power asymmetries. Instead of thinking about digital sovereignty as a means to promote authoritarianism, it is useful to widen the aperture and consider how the concept can help smaller states assert their own security and economic interests, particularly against powerful transnational corporations and large nation-states. Gagliardone, meanwhile, asserts that digital sovereignty proponents have neglected to consider its implications for postcolonial states. A deeper examination of the contradictions behind the concept of internet sovereignty, viewed through an African lens, offers a counterpoint to China’s assertions that a bordered internet would advantage countries in the Global South.

Luca Belli focuses on AI sovereignty, asserting that because of the transformational nature of AI technology, it is critical for countries in the Global South to retain agency and self-determination over these systems. Belli presents a framework he terms “key sovereignty enablers” (KASE) and lays out eight factors essential for achieving “sustainable and strategically autonomous AI ecosystems:” establishing both algorithmic governance and data governance, attaining computational capacity, ensuring meaningful connectivity, securing reliable electrical power, advancing a digitally literate population, maintaining strong cybersecurity, and passing appropriate regulations.

The third set of essays scrutinizes the interaction between platforms, digital rights, and transparency. Agustina Del Campo presents a novel argument about how “volume, speed, and accessibility” accelerated by information and communication technology warrants a rethinking of legal principles related to free expression. She observes that under current law, justices must first determine whether speech is defamatory or harmful before factoring in speed, volume, and accessibility into the scale of the damages. But for online speech, where harms may stem from secondary factors (such as the effect of hundreds of accounts spamming “harmful but legal” content), courts and legislatures have been unable to properly characterize or deal with these features.

Jan Rydzak’s article warns that tech companies are becoming less transparent about how they handle requests for information and censorship demands from governments. While there are some positive signs, such as new disclosure requirements in the European Union (EU)’s Digital Services Act, he cautions about a global reversal in platform accountability.

The last set of articles address geopolitical and governance questions linked to technology. Irene Poetranto analyzes the United Nations’ efforts to create a Global Digital Compact (GDC), intended to advance “shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all.” Poetranto writes that if the GDC adopted a collaborative process, it could build trust among governments and convince fence-sitting states about the value of adopting inclusive and multistakeholder governance approaches, rather than following the state-dominated model promoted by China and Russia.

Akin Unver lays out a provocative issue: while industrialized nations convene dialogues around ethical AI principles and democratic frameworks, “emerging economies are often caught in a turbulent pathway of rapid modernization and authoritarian misuse.” For many developing nations and emerging economies, ethical AI is a “luxury,” overtaken by the urgent need to leverage AI for technological, economic, and even political gain. Unver asks: does responsible and democratic AI use stimulate development, or is AI development a precursor, enabling nations to subsequently adapt AI use to democratic norms?

Finally, Brian Kot interrogates the conventional narrative that U.S. export control policy is centered around geoeconomic considerations while EU policy mostly focuses on protecting human rights. He argues that recent developments in the United States’ and the EU’s export policies “undermine this dichotomized narrative,” such as Europe’s curtailment of certain advanced technologies to China for geostrategic reasons and U.S. restrictions against commercial spyware due to human rights abuses.

These diverse global perspectives offer insights about new areas of technological competition and emerging trends. The articles underscore the nuance and complexities of how digital technologies are impacting governance, politics, and society. They are intended to help decisionmakers bridge the gap between local perspectives and global conversations.

No comments: