Responding to Digital Repression: Opportunities for Governments
Allie Funk provides the ninth chapter to Global Policy's e-book on 'Digital Repression: Causes, Consequences and Policy Responses'. The e-book's chapters will be serialised on Global Policy over the course of 2023. Please find the other chapters here.
Digital repression is more sophisticated, entrenched, and transnational than ever before. Governments across the democratic spectrum are deploying technology as a vehicle for control. This chapter outlines key opportunities for states to respond: (1) more effective multilateral coordination; (2) bolstered national protections for human rights online; and (3) increased investment in local actors.
Ultimately, no government can address this problem alone. Human rights groups, media institutions, and activists are on the front lines of resisting repression, and industry experts possess technical knowledge and experience from years of confronting censorship and surveillance. States should take an inclusive approach to policymaking, closely working with civil society, academia, the private sector, and other experts to create and implement these recommendations, monitor their effectiveness, and innovate new approaches. Working together, governments, civil society, and industry can foster a more democratic future.
At the international level
Greater coordination among likeminded states is necessary to respond to digital repression. At the international level, governments can reinvigorate norms in multilateral and bilateral settings, incorporate internet freedom in democracy assistance, and reduce opportunities for foreign actors to use digital technology for harm.
Democratic investments in multilateral bodies like the United Nations (UN) and the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) are important counterweights to efforts led by authoritarian states like Russia and China, which have vied to cement their model of digital control at global forums. Established in 2011 largely for diplomatic coordination (Jackson et. al 2022), the FOC presents an unrealized opportunity for human rights online, and recent investments in the body – including by the U.S. government as 2023 FOC chair – present a chance to reinvigorate the alliance. Member states should strengthen the body’s name recognition and its ability to drive diplomatic coordination around tech policy. They should also proactively articulate the advantages of free and open internet and engage with the so-called "swing states” of internet freedom, showing that protecting human rights benefits local economies and national security.
Democracies should not shy away from participating in multilateral standards-setting bodies. The UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has been an unexpected breeding ground for authoritarian influence, particularly under China’s recent leadership. In these spaces, democracies can prevent slides toward digital repression, including by safeguarding the internet’s decentralized infrastructure and supporting internet-related multistakeholder bodies – like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Number (ICANN) – where civil society and non-governmental experts have decision-making power.
Democracies should also combat digital repression through bilateral engagement. More than three-quarters of the world’s internet users live in countries where they face legal repercussions for expressing themselves online (Shahbaz et. al 2022); when engaging with perpetrator countries, democracies should advocate for repealing laws criminalizing free expression and unconditionally releasing people detained under these statutes.
A free-for-all private market has allowed spyware, social media monitoring, and other advanced technology to be sold at affordable prices. This has lowered the cost of entry for security agencies, law enforcement, and other state entities that target their populations at home and abroad. Democracies should strictly limit the sale and export of censorship and surveillance technologies that can undermine human rights, particularly to governments that have engaged in patterns of repression.
Finally, democracy assistance programs should support civil society working on these issues and limit the impact of digital repression on communities. Non-governmental groups and human rights defenders face daunting challenges, from legal and physical repercussions to constrained financial resources. Assistance programs should provide easy-to-access funding, technical expertise, and other support, and prioritize creating open-source and user-friendly technology for censorship and surveillance circumvention. Courts also serve as a bulwark for human rights online (Shahbaz et. al 2022). Assistance programs should aim to safeguard judicial independence, improve technical literacy among judges, and provide resources for strategic litigation.
At the national level
Democracies’ problematic behavior at home resonates beyond their borders: autocratic leaders often point to democracies’ actions to justify their own repression. For example, Germany’s controversial Network Enforcement Act – which compels companies to remove vaguely defined “illegal” content without judicial oversight (Human Rights Watch 2018) – has been used as a model by at least 13 governments, including by less free states to silence the speech of civil society and opposition politicians (Freedom House 2022). Responding to the global misuse of technology requires democracies to look inward and embed human rights protections into national-level policies.
Disproportionate surveillance remains one of democracies’ most glaring problems in this space. An increasingly securitized mindset has driven a misguided belief that intrusive tools and access to troves of data will bring about a safer society. Policymakers should instead strengthen domestic privacy protections, and surveillance rules – including those that use biometrics and open-source intelligence methods like social media monitoring – should adhere to the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance (2013), guidelines created by an expert coalition outlining under what circumstances state access to data is justified.
Democratic leaders have also sought to undermine end-to-end encryption, a necessary cybersecurity protocol for human rights defenders, journalists, businesses, and governments themselves. Policymakers should not mandate “back doors,” establish requirements for traceability of messages, or reduce intermediary liability protections for providers of encryption services. Democracies’ disparaging of encryption benefits autocratic leaders seeking a pretense to dismantle the technology for their own political ends.
Strong data protection laws that minimize what data the private sector can collect, how it can be stored, and with whom it can be shared can reduce digital platforms’ vulnerability as vehicles for state repression. For instance, if specific categories of personal data cannot be fed into recommendation systems, state propaganda campaigns that rely on microtargeting people based on personal characteristics may not have the same reach.
Additionally, free expression and access to information should be central pillars to states’ policy and governance of the digital ecosystem, but censorship has been normalized as a legitimate policy tool. In 2021, India secured its bleak title as the world’s leader in internet shutdowns for the fourth time (Access Now 2022). And blocks to websites hosting political, social, and religious content reached an all-time high in 2022 (Shahbaz et. al 2022).
Governments should refrain from disrupting internet access and blocking services that host content with which they disagree. While platforms can present genuine human rights and national security concerns, blocking them entirely is arbitrary, disproportionate, and unduly restrictive. Instead, policymakers should incentivize platform responsibility and bolster transparency across advertising systems, content moderation, algorithmic systems, and other core practices. Vetted researchers can also be given access to certain forms of data from large platforms, which can inform future policy development, research, and advocacy. Strengthened transparency can shed light into how the private sector contributes to digital repression. The European Union’s Digital Services Act serves as one promising model for regulating large platforms.
Finally, content hosts should benefit from safe-harbor protections for most user-generated and third-party content. Strong protections against intermediary liability are imperative amid rising state censorship. They encourage responsible content moderation of violent, incendiary, or harmful speech that may otherwise be legal in a given country and, without them, websites and platforms may err on the side of censorship rather than protect speech in order to avoid being held liable.
At the local level
Local stakeholders – including state officials, news outlets, and grassroots activists – are most directly connected to their communities and are critical for building digital resilience. Diverse and independent local media are at risk from hostile actors, market concentration, and a lack of sustainable funding. People are thus losing access to reliable information that encourages public participation, explores the impact digital technology has on human rights, and holds powerful actors accountable. Democracies should support local media environments by giving full access to state officials and resources, protecting from online harassment and intimidation, and supporting financial assistance and innovative financing models, skills training, and mentoring.
Finally, civic education and digital hygiene programs can help build capacity to identify and debunk unreliable information, including from state disinformation campaigns. Funding to local schools and training programs, at all educational levels, should prioritize digital and media literacy, and digital hygiene best practices, like using virtual private networks. Fostering a strong public understanding of and resilience to digital repression empowers people to defend human rights domestically and support foreign policies that protect them abroad.
Allie Funk is Research Director for Technology and Democracy at Freedom House. She leads the organization’s technology and democracy initiative, including Freedom on the Net, Election Watch for the Digital Age, and work related to protecting a free and open internet. She also represents Freedom House on the Freedom Online Coalition's Advisory Network, and her analysis on human rights online has been published in numerous Freedom House reports and in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, WIRED, the Hill, the Information, the Diplomat, and Just Security, among others.
Photo by Kelly
Access Now. 2022. “Report: Internet Shutdowns in India in 2021.” Access Now. https://www.accessnow.org/internet-shutdowns-india-keepiton-2021.
Freedom House. 2022. “Freedom on the Net 2022: Singapore.” Freedom House, October 2022. https://freedomhouse.org/country/singapore/freedom-net/2022.
Human Rights Watch. 2018. “Germany: Flawed Social Media Law.” Human Rights Watch, February 14, 2018. https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/02/14/germany-flawed-social-media-law.
International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance. 2013. “International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance.” 2013. https://necessaryandproportionate.org.
Jackson, Rose, Leah Fiddler, and Jacqueline Malaret. 2022. “An Introduction to the Freedom Online Coalition.” Atlantic Council. Atlantic Council. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/report/introduction-freedom-online-coalition/.
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Shahbaz, Adrian, Allie Funk, and Kian Vesteinsson. 2022. “Freedom on the Net 2022: Countering an Authoritarian Overhaul of the Internet.” Freedom House, October 2022. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2022/countering-authoritarian-overhaul-internet.