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Don't let China and Russia export digital censorship

From Nicaragua’s adoption of Russia’s oppressive foreign agent law to Huawei’s provision of surveillance technology to Uganda, the Kremlin and the People’s Republic of China have been reliable exporters of authoritarian tactics and innovators in surveillance and repression.  Thanks in large part to China and Russia, new research indicates that digital censorship is on the rise.

The foremost innovator in this area is China, which oversees a vast censorship ecosystem. Through internet infrastructure, advanced legislation and regulatory mechanisms and its “Great Firewall,” the Chinese government can control all aspects of digital information within its borders.

While Russia trails China in terms of technical sophistication, its censorship regime is catching up and remains potent. For example, Russia’s notorious Foreign Agents Law is used to censor individuals and organizations that criticize the Putin regime and block websites and social media accounts of “unregistered” entities, while government-controlled telecommunications regulatory bodies have further tightened the noose on free expression.

Both China and Russia use legislative and regulatory tools to legitimize censorship, granting authorities wide latitude to suppress information and penalize dissent. In addition, they wield technological tools to target content directly or restrict access to platforms and services that enable the dissemination of information. Other countries are following their lead, drawing inspiration from Russia’s and China’s models of repression and deploying similar tools and tactics.

The impact of this rising tide of digital censorship is evident across multiple countries, and it poses a severe threat to free speech, human rights and the principles of an open society.

In Turkey, the legislative and regulatory systems do not explicitly enable government censorship. But anti-terror laws are used to target journalists and curtail freedom of expression online and offline. Recent laws aimed at social media and streaming services enable Turkish regulators to remove content based on vague notions of “family values” and “morality.” Turkey’s technical capabilities make it a potent innovator and emulator of digital censorship.

Nicaragua has mirrored Russian legislation on content regulation, following the template of vague descriptions of objectionable digital content and harsh punishments for violations. Lacking the technical sophistication of innovator countries, Nicaragua also uses traditional tools such as arrests and imprisonment to induce self-censorship and target opposition journalists and activists.

Following China’s and Russia’s legislative approach, Azerbaijan has passed laws that codify censorship and seized the opportunity to expand information control during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Frequent bans of opposition and independent media websites have limited access to independent sources of information, while Azerbaijan’s use of DPI technology and spyware tools raise serious concerns about privacy and surveillance.

Democratic countries have also adapted some of these methods, with worrying consequences. Serbia has enacted “response-to-crisis” laws granting the government broader power to regulate information in specific circumstances, and based partly on similar Russian measures. Serbia has also installed PRC-supplied technology for digital surveillance. While the current laws align with EU standards, their provenance raises questions about the potential for more restrictive measures given the trend toward democratic backsliding in Serbia.

In Uganda, the government has established a legal framework enabling them to control and censor online content and target journalists and activists under the guise of “national security” and “public safety.” Legislation is often used to arrest individuals for sharing content critical of the government and is deployed to deter internet use altogether. In addition, Articles 43 and 44 of the Ugandan constitution have been invoked to justify internet shutdowns during elections.

The Ugandan government has also utilized Chinese-provided surveillance technology to monitor the government opposition and civil society and suppress content and activity critical of the regime.

The expansion of digital censorship and widening availability of surveillance technology represents a critical threat to global democracy — one which the world’s democracies must take urgent action to address. Democratic powers like the U.S. and its partners should begin by initiating a set of common international standards on digital and internet governance to ensure a free and open internet. This includes continuing to play a leading role in multilateral forums such as the International Telecommunication Union, to ensure that standards on digital governance align with democratic and not autocratic values.

As the main engine of innovation, democracies are at the forefront of developing many of the digital technologies that can be used by authoritarian powers. As such, democratic governments should consider monitoring and export restrictions to limit the opportunities to use these tools for malign ends. Technology companies should also resist the temptation to sell such technologies to autocrats and to comply with government demands that infringe on free speech and privacy rights, instead pushing for transparency and user empowerment.

Finally, democracies must grapple with the role of development assistance in facilitating both digital censorship, but also digital democracy. China’s Belt and Road initiative has been used as an avenue to export the types of technologies referenced above; the U.S. and its democratic partners can counter these activities by supporting countries in developing free and open communication channels.

Preserving the integrity of the internet as an open and free space for the exchange of ideas is crucial to upholding the fundamental values of democracy and human rights. It’s time for democracies to join forces and to push back against digital censorship. 

Caitlin Dearing Scott is the director for Countering Foreign Authoritarian Influence and Strategy at the International Republican Institute. Jonathan Solis is a senior research analyst at AidData.

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