Fighting for Digital Freedom


Competition for dominance over information technology ecosystems underpins the battle between democratic and authoritarian rule


Thousands of Cubans flooded the streets in July 2021 to protest their government’s failure to provide food, medicine and other necessities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Within days the communist regime shut down the country’s internet and telephone communications, blocking the broadcast of widespread discontent to the outside world for several days. Cuba not only borrowed a page from the Chinese Communist Party’s playbook on how it controls its citizens, but Chinese technologies and companies, which built Cuba’s telecommunications infrastructure, made this type of censorship possible.

Repressive regimes such as Cuba are increasingly looking to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to provide digital tools for domestic surveillance, monitoring and censorship to manipulate domestic and foreign populations and to promote their authoritarian form of rule, according to a series of reports by leading security think tanks.

Elements of the Chinese government’s brand of high-tech repression, used most prominently to control minority populations in Xinjiang province, have been installed in other parts of China and exported to dozens of countries in Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, as the reports detailed. At least 50 countries are developing surveillance systems supported by technologies supplied by Chinese firm Huawei, a 2019 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace revealed. Russia’s relatively lower-tech disinformation tools have also been exported to dozens of countries to help repress opposition at home and foment civil discord in democracies abroad, as Dr. Alina Polyakova and Chris Meserole chronicled in a 2019 Brookings Institution report, “Exporting Digital Authoritarianism: The Chinese and Russian Models.”

Riot police walk the streets July 12, 2021, after a large, anti-government demonstration in Havana, Cuba. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

More moderate governments, even some democracies such as Serbia and Uganda, have also been enticed by the promises of control these technologies offer despite the long-term repercussions of their use, as Erol Yayboke and Sam Brannen explained in a 2020 report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), titled “Promote and Build: A Strategic Approach to Digital Authoritarianism.”

The trends have only accelerated since the reports came out. “Authoritarian-led states have continued to use digital means to repress their citizens, often using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to enact even more strict controls,” Yayboke, who is now director of CSIS’s Project on Fragility and Mobility, told FORUM. “For example, location and virus testing data can be collected for public health reasons but can also be used as a way for governments to keep closer tabs on their citizens. But what most concerns me is the emergence of these trends in ostensibly nonauthoritarian-led countries. One tool in particular — data localization — is being used more often under the guise of ‘privacy’ and ‘national security.’”

Although the motivations for using these technologies may vary greatly, “in many cases, democratic or partially democratic countries are turning to such technologies (many of which originate in places like China and Russia) because they are cheapest and sometimes the only available ones to them. Others may feel that, especially during a pandemic, knowing more about citizens is more beneficial than knowing less, perhaps even convincing themselves that these increased control measures are temporary, put in place in an emergency,” Yayboke said. “History tells us though that this type of increased control, even if originally meant to be short-term and for nonmanipulative reasons, is tough for leaders to relinquish.”

Allies, partners and like-minded nations must work together to put forth a competitive democratic model of digital governance to counter the spread of digital authoritarianism, experts agree. The systems must increase security but protect civil liberties and human rights and be introduced with established norms of conduct, asserted Meserole, who is research director for Brookings Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative, and Polyakova, now president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Militaries can play a critical role in establishing and protecting digital democracies, other experts contend, despite that some nations are deploying their militaries to perpetuate digital authoritarianism. Increasing public awareness about the manipulation and control of information is also a key part of the solution, experts agree.

“Democracies must recognize that we are in a geopolitical battle over the digital governance model that will dominate in the 21st century,” concluded a June 2021 report by the Task Force on U.S. Strategy to Support Democracy and Counter Authoritarianism, which was established by Freedom House, a nonprofit nongovernmental organization, CSIS and the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University in September 2020.

A car passes the National Capitol Building in Havana, Cuba, on July 12, 2021, a day after thousands of demonstrators took to the streets, chanting “down with dictatorship.” AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Taiwan’s Model

Taiwan, for example, is developing a leading model for digital democracy based on its goals for parliamentary reforms. Its model strives to use emerging technologies to facilitate transparency, openness, participation, digitization and literacy, the online magazine The Diplomat reported in July 2021.

Digital democracy is founded on civic-tech, the use of technology to create democracy and give citizens a vote, Min Hsuan Wu, also known as Ttcat, explained to The Diplomat. He co-founded Doublethink Labs, an organization created in 2019 to research threats to democracy and devise ways to counter them. Meanwhile, digital authoritarianism relies on tools ranging from those for repression and disruption, such as surveillance, espionage, cyberattacks, censorship, and social and electoral manipulation, to those for strategic competition, such as technologies that enable digital infrastructure, control of internet service systems and data localization, Yayboke said.

“While Beijing uses digital tools such as the social credit system and state censorship, in Taiwan the social sector actively creates digital infrastructures to enable everyday citizens to propose and express opinions on policy reforms,” Taiwan Digital Minister Audrey Tang told The Diplomat. “In a digital democracy, transparency is about making the state transparent to the public. Under digital authoritarianism, the word ‘transparency’ means making citizens transparent to the state.”

Lessons learned and technologies developed to reform Taiwan’s government are readily transferrable to other democracies. Although none of the emerging models is perfect, Yayboke said Denmark and Estonia also have built good models of digital democracies that might be shared with other nations.

“For China, maybe only one thing is certain, that the propaganda narrative they ran for years — that democracy is not for Asia — is no longer appealing under Taiwan’s progress,” Ttcat told The Diplomat.

Residents watch security personnel in Kashgar in western China’s Xinjiang region. Authorities are using detention centers and data-driven surveillance to impose a police state on Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the region. The Associated Press

Defending Democracy

Along with competitive models, approaches that restrict the supply of technologies that enable digital authoritarianism, such as sanctions and export controls, could help curb deployment of such systems, several of the think tank reports suggested. However, the problem is complex in part because of the maturity of the surveillance economy. Although China is the largest supplier of surveillance systems, nations including France, Israel, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States also supply advanced technologies that can be used to facilitate population-scale control, as Meserole and Polyakova noted.

The U.S. and many European countries have taken steps to limit the export of advanced processors and sensors that enable mass surveillance systems, which continue to mainly be manufactured in Western countries, as the Brookings report stated. For example, the administration of then-U.S. President Donald Trump blocked global chip supplies to Huawei in May 2020 to impede the company’s expansion, Reuters reported. Such measures may be slowing the proliferation of mass surveillance systems, given that the PRC has made little progress in achieving self-sufficiency in semiconductors and its large subsidies for semiconductor projects have failed to produce successes, according to news reports. China’s self-sufficiency ratio for semiconductors is expected to be only 19.4% in 2025, a May 2021 article on the Nikkei Asia website reported.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the timetable for Europe, North America and other regions to reduce supply-chain dependence on China by not only highlighting the issue but also raising fears among Western and Indo-Pacific businesses about the data security and privacy risk related to collaborating with Chinese companies on technology endeavors. For example, India banned 59 Chinese apps from its domestic market in January 2021, news agencies reported. Yet, long before the pandemic, many countries, including Australia, had already blocked Huawei from supplying their 5G networks.

The U.S. has launched multiple initiatives to counter digital authoritarianism by increasing competitiveness through efforts that move beyond imposing economic restrictions to decouple the U.S. and Chinese economies. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding artificial intelligence (AI) research to better understand digital authoritarianism with projects that range from detecting misinformation and deep fakes online to analyzing information operation campaigns. Legislators are pushing several initiatives to revamp microelectronics production and bolster U.S. technology competitiveness. In March 2020, legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate to create an international partnership, led by a new U.S. State Department office, to counter the influence of authoritarian governments such as China on emerging technologies. The office would forge a path to set international technology standards, among other goals.

Collaboration is key for countering digital authoritarianism, according to Mieke Eoyang, U.S. deputy assistant defense secretary for cyber policy. “We need to make sure that we are offering alternatives to allies when they are thinking, when they are considering their own technology purchases, and we need to do a better job of sharing the risks and vulnerabilities that our allies and partners might incur if they were to engage in purchasing such technologies,” Eoyang told

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), an independent policy think tank based in Washington, D.C., issued a report in mid-June 2021 pushing for the U.S. to establish an independent agency to drive a national technology strategy to compete with China as well. The proposed National Advanced Industry and Technology Agency would have a budget comparable to the National Science Foundation, which is more than U.S. $8 billion annually, and have five divisions: data and analysis, advanced industries, emerging technologies, innovation systems and cross-agency and cross-government coordination.

“There are many steps Congress and the administration should take to compete against China, but the best way to completely change the game would be to create a specialized agency with a focused mission and sufficient resources to bolster the competitive position of advanced technology industries,” Robert Atkinson, ITIF president and author of the report, said in a June 2021 statement.

Still others contend that shoring up democracy is critical for countering digital authoritarianism. Leading democracies, such as the U.S., need to strengthen trust in domestic institutions by expelling foreign intervention in elections, supporting free and fair elections, committing to peaceful transitions of power and limiting misinformation and spread of conspiracy theories, Yayboke and Brannen argue in their CSIS report.

The June 2021 report from the Freedom House-led task force goes further. It recommends: “The United States should embrace a ‘diplomacy of democracy,’ making democracy and countering authoritarianism a priority for U.S. diplomatic engagement. That prioritization should include galvanizing an international coalition to push back against authoritarian threats and reinforce democratic governance. Our fundamental approach should be one of partnership and solidarity with governments, civil society organizations, universities, the private sector and citizens working to confront these challenges together.” U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy, held December 2021, presented an ideal opportunity to do just that, the task force noted.

Allied nations and partners must also promote democratic and human rights principles abroad and promote free online expression and secure communication, Meserole and Polyakova recommended. “To build resilience against foreign influence operations in democratic societies, governments should invest in raising public awareness around information manipulation,” they wrote. “This should include funding of educational programs that build digital critical thinking skills among youth.”

Military Role

Defense leaders and security professionals, however, should not wait for the rest of the government to act, Joshua Baron, a DARPA program manager, told FORUM. “The notion of digital authoritarianism is not just an issue within foreign policy circles but within national security circles,” he said.

Technologies that enable digital authoritarianism make operating in such environments more challenging for allies and partner militaries. For example, tools that facilitate real-time surveillance and internet blocking can weaken operational security, Baron said. “To the degree that the [U.S.] Defense Department operates over the internet, everything we do has a digital footprint. As countries have better capabilities to control that environment, it will have implications for us.”

Countries that are heavily invested in population-scale surveillance technologies, for example, could have an advantage in using them to influence U.S. allies and partners given the defense community has not historically considered them to be weapons, Baron said. Other tools related to digital authoritarianism could be used to “enable domestic influence and control operations that can shore up public support for a revisionist regime and embolden it to conduct similar operations against American audiences,” Baron explained in a June 2021 article for

DARPA has funded several programs to create tools to counter such capabilities by helping the military and citizens understand the truth about what’s really happening on the ground, Baron told FORUM. For example, it’s developing an attack-resistant mobile communication network for use in a contested environment. Known as Resilient Anonymous Communication for Everyone (RACE), the project will enable users to evade large-scale adversary targeting using encryption and protocol embedding strategies, said Baron, who oversees the program. RACE technologies may also mitigate denial of service attacks and protect privacy.

DARPA has also launched a program, called Measuring the Information Control Environment (MICE), to develop AI technology to measure how authoritarian regimes repress their populations at scale over the internet via censorship, blocking and throttling, Baron said. “MICE-developed technology will continuously and automatically update and feed into easily-understood dashboards in order to develop comprehensive, real-time ground truth understanding of how countries conduct domestic information control,” according to DARPA.

The security risks for nations and militaries from surveillance, censorship and hacking capabilities continue to grow. For example, some governments are employing data localization policies to limit democracy and human rights as an extension of digital authoritarianism. “Tighter controls on the cross-border flow of data are an emerging concern,” Yayboke told FORUM. By territorializing data, governments can better execute crackdowns on free expression, privacy and human rights, Yayboke explained in a July 2021 CSIS policy brief.

“Often, these data localization mandates are put forth under the guise of ‘protecting’ individuals’ privacy or security, but the result is often the exact opposite. When citizen data — from Google Maps searches to Instagram likes to TikTok posts — is forced to be stored on local servers, governments have greater opportunities to use these data to gain greater control over the population. From Bangladesh to China to Russia and beyond, this manipulation enhances and strengthens the modern digital surveillance and censorship state,” Yayboke wrote in the brief, titled “The Real National Security Concerns over Data Localization.”

Data localization can also restrict collaboration among military, law enforcement, intelligence and other security professionals by blocking access across borders. “It effectively provides a safe haven for actors who execute gray zone tactics, including information operations via social media and illicit financial activities, on platforms subject to localization requirements — limiting the ability of targeted countries to combat and investigate them and, if applicable, prosecute the perpetrators of related crimes,” Yayboke wrote.

“If U.S. friends and allies adopt stricter data localization requirements, it could further complicate an already convoluted and outdated mutual legal assistance treaty system, increasing barriers to law enforcement in the growing number of cases involving data that flowed across international borders. This would weaken current information-sharing channels and businesses’ reporting obligations, thereby impacting intelligence-gathering methods and criminal investigations.”

Digital Strategy Required

The proliferation of such activities makes the need for a cohesive digital strategy more urgent — one that forms the foundation for a principles-based approach among like-minded nations, experts agree. “In short, the tools of digital authoritarianism are effective for control and manipulation. Malign actors foreign and domestic can use them in ways that are fundamentally misaligned with democratic principles, for example, via disinformation campaigns that use slickly presented falsehoods to gain electoral advantage,” Yayboke told FORUM. “But the fundamental goal of many such actors is actually not direct manipulation but rather in sowing mistrust in the institutions of democracy: elections, civil society groups, independent expertise, etc. In this regard, the tools of digital authoritarianism are unparalleled in their effectiveness.”

For all these reasons, the U.S. and its allies and partners must offer better choices for digital governing and surveillance than Chinese technologies and Russian tactics offer, experts agree. Allies and partners need to develop tools to provide privacy, guarantee internet freedom and counter influence campaigns. Like-minded nations must work with tech companies and nongovernmental organizations to develop a code of conduct for managing personal data, establishing common standards across platforms and addressing social media manipulation, as Meserole and Polyakova recommended.

Nations must work together to develop research strategies and whole-of-government approaches to counter digital authoritarianism, including building multilateral coalitions, as Yayboke and Brannen advocated. For example, nations should collaborate with industry to ensure continued participation and representation of democratic interests on international technology standards-setting bodies, such as the United Nation’s International Telecommunication Union and the World Trade Organization, they suggested.

Defense professionals can lead the way by developing tools to help understand the digital playing field and shore up their militaries’ advantages on the digital battlefield, DARPA’s Baron added. “Security forces the world over are getting more digitally sophisticated. They can collect and assess data more effectively and efficiently and then bring real-world enforcement capabilities to these perceived threats that originate online,” Yayboke agreed.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *