Technology

Technology

Technology

Authoritarian influencers take advantage of emerging technologies and the globally connected digital environment to extend their reach into open societies.

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Overview

Rapid advancements in the technological sphere have been a driving force of globalization, leading to ever deeper forms of technological interdependence between democracies and autocracies. Ubiquitous instant-communication tools and technologies that enable the collection and processing of big data have opened unexpected avenues for the manipulation of public opinion, political processes, and democratic institutions. 

Emerging technologies are reshaping how communities interact with their environment, how businesses deliver services, and how governments solve problems. Until the past decade, the dominant assumption was that the conveniences and practical capabilities of new technologies—including big data tools, integrated urban-management systems (“smart cities”), and the so-called Internet of Things (IOT)—would generate positive progress. Instead, it has become increasingly clear that the advantages these powerful technologies offer to authoritarian regimes have been profoundly underestimated.


Sharp Power Influence

Platforms and innovations developed in open, democratic settings are not immune from vulnerabilities. Google and Apple, for example, have conceded to content takedown requests from authoritarian actors, setting a harmful precedent for free speech. 

The rapid diffusion of platforms incubated in authoritarian settings poses an additional threat. The widespread uptake of TikTok and WeChat—both developed by Chinese-owned companies—has enabled censorship, misinformation, and other corrosive practices in some settings.

Authoritarian powers are harnessing artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to devise ever more precise methods of social management. When disseminated in places where civil society and government oversight are limited, AI technologies can facilitate the closing of civic space and the normalization of authoritarian values.  

International standard-setting bodies—such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)—present a ripe opportunity for authoritarian actors to shape the underpinnings of the international technological environment, from technical standards to the conceptual framing of tech-related debates.

Emerging technologies offer numerous conveniences and capabilities, benefiting consumers and government alike; they also carry inherent risks that can threaten liberal democracies when leveraged by powerful dictatorships that wish the reinforce and spread their authoritarianism.

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Samantha Hoffman

Double-Edged Sword: China’s Sharp Power Exploitation of Emerging Technologies

Democratic Responses

Modern technology is shaping the political landscape, and democracies should deepen efforts to encourage free expression, protect the integrity of information, and strengthen essential privacy safeguards. Civil society can meet this multisectoral challenging by coordinating with media, government, and private-sector actors.

Norms and Standard Setting
  • Civil society should participate in transparent, multistakeholder governance and international standard-setting bodies like the ITU, ISO, and IEC.
  • Nongovernmental actors can support the “siloing” of data to limit authoritarian affordances and enhance security.
  • Civil society should encourage investment in research and development to offer credible alternatives to systems and services designed to meet authoritarian standards.
Cross-Sector Collaboration
  • Media and civil society organizations should coordinate to expose and amplify indicators of tech-enabled sharp power in their countries. This will contribute to broader public awareness of the issues, encourage debate on what should be done, and pressure governments to take protective action.
  • Corporate and government research-and-development technology enterprises should invite civil society groups to consult on whether their technologies meet democratic standards. 
Education and Awareness
  • Civil society organizations should be trained on emerging technologies and enabled to implement digital literacy programs that go beyond basic personal and corporate data-management practices.
  • Civil society can leverage foreign-language expertise to pursue research into authoritarian states’ laws, regulations, and pronouncements surrounding emerging technologies.

Technology

The reporting and analysis catalogued in the Portal illustrates how authoritarian powers influence international norms and standards governing emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, smart cities, big data, and surveillance tools.

Latest Resources

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Source: Wired

Publication Date: July 27, 2022

How Tor Is Fighting—and Beating—Russian Censorship

Authoritarian Country: Russia

Affected Region: Europe, Ukraine, Eurasia, Russia

Author: Matt Burgess

View Resource: How Tor Is Fighting—and Beating—Russian Censorship

Russia’s efforts to block Tor came in two flavors—the technical and the political—and extended beyond its own borders. In some areas of occupied Ukraine, internet connections were being rerouted through Russian networks, and that brought censorship and surveillance with it.

Source: Democracy Paradox

Publication Date: July 25, 2022

Aynne Kokas on the Intersection Between Surveillance Capitalism and Chinese Sharp Power

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Global

View Resource: Aynne Kokas on the Intersection Between Surveillance Capitalism and Chinese Sharp Power

Consumers can be exploited by companies from any number of countries due to a lack of data privacy regulations. The risk of partnering with Chinese firms stands out, however, due to the government’s established framework that pressures firms into storing data in China and sharing it with regulators.

Source: Vice

Publication Date: July 24, 2022

Revealed: Documents Show How Roblox Planned to Bend to Chinese Censorship

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: North America, United States, Asia-Pacific, China

Author: Joseph Cox

View Resource: Revealed: Documents Show How Roblox Planned to Bend to Chinese Censorship

In partnering with Chinese tech firm Tencent to launch a version of its game in China, video game developer Roblox had to comply with Chinese censorship laws—for example, maps created in the game had to recognize Beijing’s claim of self-ruled Taiwan —and host user data on local servers.

Source: Journal of Democracy

Publication Date: July 19, 2022

Combating Beijing’s Sharp Power: How Australia’s Civil Society Led the Way

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Asia-Pacific, Australia

Author: John Fitzgerald

View Resource: Combating Beijing’s Sharp Power: How Australia’s Civil Society Led the Way

Australian civil society was years ahead of the government and its agencies in exposing PRC surveillance and interference among local diaspora communities and in working to defend the rights of those belonging to these communities as equal citizens of Australia.

Source: Journal of Democracy

Publication Date: July 19, 2022

Combating Beijing’s Sharp Power: Taiwan’s Democracy Under Fire

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Asia-Pacific, Taiwan

Author: Ketty W. Chen

View Resource: Combating Beijing’s Sharp Power: Taiwan’s Democracy Under Fire

The Chinese Communist Party continues to launch influence operations against Taiwan, often using proxies to serve PRC aims. One factor working in Taiwan’s favor as it resists these efforts is the commitment of its robust and vibrant civil society to defending the island nation’s democracy.

Source: Journal of Democracy

Publication Date: July 19, 2022

Combating Beijing’s Sharp Power: Transparency Wins in Europe

Authoritarian Country: China

Affected Region: Europe, Czechia, North Macedonia, Lithuania, Hungary

Author: Martin Hála

View Resource: Combating Beijing’s Sharp Power: Transparency Wins in Europe

Making friends among foreign political elites through united front work, “economic diplomacy,” corruption, and other means allows Beijing to repurpose coopted institutions for its own agenda, undermining democratic systems from within. It is the role of democratic civil society to expose these efforts.

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