The Internet has become a tool of authoritarian repression

The internet was supposed to set us free. Yet over the past two decades, authoritarian regimes have quickly adapted long-standing tactics to the digital age, leveraging social mechanisms and mores to maintain their hold over captive populations. While the internet and social media revolutions may have made activists better able to resist dictatorial overtures, they have also given anti-democratic despots new tools to more effectively eradicate dissent through the use of dissent. digital surveillance, disinformation and to their people.

“In 2019 alone, we saw 1,706 days of interrupted internet access and 213 internet shutdowns in 33 different countries,” said Moira Whelan, director of democracy and technology at the National Democratic Institute, at the conference. ‘a recent SXSW 2021 roundtable.

“These network closures often occur around protests, around elections – especially flawed ones – as well as cases of police violence where authorities do not want images of their police brutally repressing a broadcast peaceful protest. not only to their own citizens, but to people around the world, ”Adrian Shahbaz, director of technology and democracy at Freedom House, told the panel.

“People not only lose access to things like social media, but often if the internet is down, they can’t go to ATMs, they can’t access educational materials, even some phone or TV services. . Online banks are losing the ability to function, businesses are losing the ability to communicate with their customers and suppliers, ”he continued. “You name it, it affects all sectors.”

Dictatorial regimes have traditionally relied on limiting the flow of both external and internal information – and therefore influence – to maintain control over their citizens. For example, in 2000, the Chinese autocracy instituted a policy of “cyber-sovereignty”, essentially state control over the Internet, dubbed the , which formally sought to improve the efficiency and responsiveness of its national police force. This initial program eventually metastasized into what is now called “A nationwide split between domestic and international web traffic with CCP censors in full control of the online information Chinese citizens have access to. “They have all kinds of laws and technical infrastructure in place to clean the internet of anything that could be considered sensitive, which could make people think independently about the Chinese Communist Party or how things should be. be managed, ”Shahbaz said. Of course, there are many online tools that allow Chinese citizens to bypass their government’s censorship policies.

Stringer. / reuters

For example, during and civil regime claims, which lasted from June 3, 2019 to July 9, 2019, authorities disabled the “access point name,” or APN, in the mobile data network – thereby disabling Internet access for the Sudanese people. The researchers estimated “the economic damage from this Internet shutdown at about $ 1 billion, or about 1% of the country’s GDP,” Shahbaz said.

“I think we have seen throughout history whether the Internet exists or not, it would happen over and over again that dictators are willing to put their power and desire for control above all these other aspects. the well-being of their societies and the well-being of their citizens, ”added Laura Cunningham, President of the Open Technology Fund. “We’re just seeing that the same pattern is reproducing now in the digital age.” This tactic was also seen in Myanmar’s recent military coup, where the country’s military junta shut down Facebook, which represents around 40% of the country’s population – – relies on information services, in an effort to thwart protests.

The ongoing COVID pandemic has further exposed these practices around the world. A group called Chinese Human Rights Defenders, for example, has documented nearly 900 cases of people punished for sharing otherwise harmless information regarding COVID-19 in the first six months of the crisis, Shahad noted. We have also seen a proliferation of tracking technologies spread under the guise of COVID-19 contact tracing.

Building on their national efforts to recast the Internet into their own authoritarian images, many countries, including China, Russia and Iran, are now seeking to extend their illiberal policies to the global network. This includes everything from banning VPNs to website censorship and using emerging surveillance technologies to monitor and suppress minority groups outside their national borders. Until the Trump administration, the United States – both the government itself and NGOs – traditionally opposed such undemocratic overtures.

Journalists and their sources are also regularly targeted by law enforcement authorities and in the case of , targeted for outright assassination. “I think it really helps highlight the very real risk that many journalists around the world take every day, literally risking their lives,” Cunningham said during the panel. “This is especially true for many female journalists.”

I think technology makes these [efforts] even more complicated and much more difficult too, ”she continued. “Being a journalist, just the title in itself in many of the countries we are talking about, is going to put you under scrutiny and most likely under surveillance.” This can include both physical surveillance, such as being tracked or having their home and their family’s home exposed to wiretapping, malware and spyware incursions, as well as harassment and harassment. of online stalking.

Nepalese journalists and photojournalists lit candles to pay tribute to journalists killed in the Kabul attack in Kathmandu, Nepal on Wednesday, May 2, 2018. The program was jointly organized by the Nepal Photojournalist Club and the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ).  (Photo by Narayan Maharjan / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

NurPhoto via Getty Images

When you “write a story, you’re going to have to communicate with sources,” Cunningham noted. “Most of these sources are probably in very difficult situations themselves, and you are now putting yourself in a place where you not only have to communicate with them, but you are also responsible, to some extent, for protecting them. security and privacy. you engage with them. As such, the use and maintenance of secure online communication technologies is vital. “Otherwise, you are exposing yourself not only to yourself, but also to other vulnerable people and groups.”

Even the information itself, gleaned from these vulnerable sources, can attract unwanted attention from an authoritarian government. “We see it – from a technical point of view – like a kind of honeypot.” Cunningham explained. “You have this information, and it will be a likely target of your government… this information needs to be kept secure not only for your story, but also for people who are affected by the data or information you have. “

And even if a journalist is successful in their attempts to collect this information, phrase it in an article, and publish it, their government can still strike back – by censoring the post itself or by taking the entire website of the journalist offline. point of sale. Personal punishment is also common, often taking the form of arrests, seizures of property and equipment, assault or murder. As such, getting these stories heard “is becoming a huge challenge now in the digital age, when most people rely on the internet or mobile technologies to access news and information,” Cunningham lamented.

“It’s frankly horrible for me to see so many female journalists who publish incredible investigative journalism exposing horrific human rights violations, only to be harassed online by government trolls or non-state actors,” he said. she continued. “We see women journalists who are personally assaulted and threatened for the work they do.”

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