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Baurzhan Rakhmetov is a PhD candidate at Cardiff University. His dissertation studies the dynamics of internet control globally and in post-Soviet states.
Brandon Valeriano is the Bren Chair of Military Innovation at the Marine Corps University. He also serves as a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a senior advisor to the Cyberspace Solarium Commission.
While many are focused on mythical [PDF] cyber war, the study of internet control is becoming more important than ever. Internet control is the implementation of censorship, surveillance, propaganda, and other means to shape and restrict the dissemination of information online. Some, like Freedom House, term this dysfunction digital authoritarianism. However, internet control is more than just an authoritarian problem. It invades the openness of democratic societies as well.
An increasing number of countries opt to control information disseminated via digital technologies. One recent incident took place in India in September 2020 when 118 applications were banned in the wake of the Sino-India border conflict. Another widely discussed case is the Trump administration’s desire to ban the Chinese applications TikTok and WeChat on the grounds of national security. These two democratic countries are the latest examples of the spread of internet control to objectively liberal states.
Most scholars attribute internet control to authoritarian countries. According to Ronald Deibert, “authoritarians have developed an arsenal that extends from technical measures, laws, policies, and regulations, to more covert and offensive techniques such as targeted malware attacks and campaigns to coopt social media.” Margaret Roberts also describes the resilience and resurgence of authoritarianism in cyberspace: “Autocrats have a large toolbox [of methods] available to them” such as “fear” (arrests of netizens/bloggers/activists and censorship laws), “friction” (content filtering and blocking websites), and “flooding” (manipulation of public opinion via propaganda and disinformation).
Authoritarian regimes, by definition, seek to control technology and the information domain to retain power. China and Russia are the main examples in the internet control literature, both utilizing sophisticated methods to control digital information. They resort to censorship of online content, internet shutdowns, manipulation of public opinion via social media, covert surveillance of communications, arrests of netizens, and adoption of restrictive internet-related legislation. Indeed, propaganda and disinformation on social media is now labelled as the “Kremlin’s playbook.”
Yet, democracies operate in the shadows as well, and cases of internet control that take place within democratic settings are neglected. The application of digital tactics by democratic countries such as India and the United States are discussed as if these cases are something other than forms of internet control. Rather, they are depicted as failures of regulation.
If we look at state-employed controls in a comparative manner, we learn more about the shape of internet control policies. India is one critical example. The largest democracy in the world censors online content, repeatedly cuts off internet and mobile services, has an army of state-aligned trolls that persistently bombards Indian cyberspace with pro-government messages, arrests internet users, and seeks to enact restrictive legislation. India is the world leader in the number of internet shutdowns.
The United States also resorts to internet control tactics, though not always to restrict the flow of information. After the 2013 Snowden revelations, it was widely known that U.S. intelligence agencies monitored U.S. citizens’ online behavior without warrants. More recently, the Department of Homeland Security monitored digital communications of protestors following the death of George Floyd.
On the other hand, President Trump’s reelection campaign has propagated disinformation with the help of digital technologies and platforms, spending enormous sums of money to spread viral conspiracies. In May, the Trump administration signed an executive order attempting to reduce legal protections enjoyed by social media companies for content posted on their platforms. Moreover, in September, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced that it planned to “eliminate access” in the United States to Chinese-owned apps WeChat and TikTok.
South Korea is another example of a democratic state that actively censors online content, especially content that portrays North Korea favorably. South Korean authorities also occasionally suppress online media and penalize internet users. The Philippines, under the Rodrigo Duterte administration, is becoming infamous for its intolerance toward independent journalists and support of internet trolls who relentlessly defend the president and manipulate public debates on the internet.
Social media manipulation, usually with the help of trolls and bots, has been identified in seventy countries, including many democracies. By expanding our aperture of who could engage in internet control, we see that an increasing number of democracies seek to control the flow of information within their borders. Control by democratic states is different, though. It is less entrenched and not as comprehensive, suggesting that studying the variations in internet control could be useful for preventing the possible spread of deviant ideas from authoritarian states to democratic societies.
Moreover, cybersecurity as a field should contain more than a focus on war and conflict. Widening the aperture means expanding what the community thinks of as cybersecurity. The field is ripe to expand to include a proliferating literature on internet governance, digital espionage, internet control, and digital repression. These areas will become more critical to the field as the nature of internet control and its effectiveness in restricting digital content becomes understood as a method to promote general cyber insecurity among populations, the core question of cybersecurity as a field.