Internet as Battlefield: War Between Authoritarian and Democratic Paradigms for Digital Tomorrow


In the 21st century, the internet has rapidly abandoned its role as a new means of communication. The 2010s saw it transform from a global village where everyone can offend someone else’s mom with no consequences into a military domain, similar to land, sea, air, and space. Unseen to many, the digital war between the world’s great powers has been going on for years.

Russia was among the first to realize that. The country’s Defense Ministry 2011 document was titled Conceptual Views on the Activity of Russia’s Armed Forces in Information Space. The fruits of this conceptual work are now known to the entire world as “Russian meddling” during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections and beyond. Still, Russia isn’t the only power to recognize the utmost importance of information wars. And it goes well beyond propaganda and meddling: the endgame for the authoritarian strategy played by Russia and China is the creation of so-called “sovereign internet,” which basically means creating parallel cyberspace completely controlled by the state.

Western democracies seem to have very few options of opposing the authoritarian pressure without sacrificing the fundamental values of democracy. Free speech has been among the core principles underpinning western societies for decades, if not centuries in some countries, so regulating information would mean playing on the authoritarian field.

That being said, the West is not without sin, too. While in authoritarian countries, it is the government that abuses people’s privacy online, in the West it’s the giant transnational corporations who had been caught red-handed violating fundamental privacy principles on numerous occasions. Yet, the only consequences they face are penalty fees that don’t seem to stop them from snooping your personal data.

In this piece, we’ll take a look at what happens in three different sides to the actual internet war—the United States, China, and the European Union—in order to understand who will eventually win this war, and how the victory can be attained.

The United States and Surveillance Capitalism

“Once we searched Google, but now Google searches us. Once we thought of digital services as free, but now surveillance capitalists think of us as free,” said Shoshanna Zuboff, an American author and scholar who introduced the “surveillance capitalism” term.

Surveillance capitalism stands for the process of profiting from surveilling citizens mostly by companies in a bid to market individuals’ personal data harvested from the Internet or mobile devices.

The possession of massive volumes of users’ personal data enables online platforms to carefully target information and ads they see online, often resulting in the manipulation of public opinion. The more the digital revolution advances the more serious the issue of personal privacy becomes.

In recent years, leading digital platforms have multiply got in the crosshairs of regulators, with the United Nations accused Facebook of playing a “determining role” in the dissemination of hate speech and contributing to genocide in Myanmar, or the infamous Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data breach when users’ personal data was collected without their consent to be used for political advertising.

Twitter has also been criticized for the position that sexist, racist, homophobic, and violent remarks don’t violate its policies, with the public accusing the social media platform of profiting from users that harass people.

As such, it seems that governmental supervision over tech giants can not be avoided eventually. As Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, previously said: “I’m a big believer in the free market. But we have to admit when the free market is not working. And it hasn’t worked here. I think it’s inevitable that there will be some level of regulation.”

It’s no surprise that tech companies are apparently not happy with the prospect of being subject to stricter regulations. Having in mind the development of related laws in different countries with different political regimes, Mark Zuckerberg urged the European Commission to boost the implementation of a universal framework for the regulation of online platforms to promote Western—democratic—sets of values.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) once said that “whatever the harms done by digital platforms, they argue […] that efforts to block fake news and hate speech, they maintain, will end up undermining the free exchange of ideas central to a free and democratic society.” Overall, the WEF seems to have viewpoints similar to those of Facebook’s founder as the organization argued:

“Our democratic values must guide us, and the lessons of the past should inform us; but only a rigorous, transparent debate can navigate the invariable tradeoffs between promoting competition and promoting efficiency, and between protecting the public from harmful content while respecting freedom of expression.”

The current year seems to be crucial for the regulation of digital platforms in the U.S. On May 28, President Donal Trump signed an executive order that targets social media companies. The move was made after Twitter labeled two of Trump’s tweets “potentially misleading.” When signing the order, Trump said it was to “defend free speech from one of the gravest dangers it has faced in American history.”

The order refers to the Communications Decency Act, which provides broad immunity to websites that oversight and moderate their own platforms. Specifically, it calls on the Federal Communications Commission to revise the scope of Section 230.

The order considers transferring complaints about political bias to the Federal Trade Commission that is now set to examine whether content moderation policies of tech companies are compliant with their pledges of neutrality.

Apart from that, the order constituted a special council to investigate allegations of censorship based on political views.

Moreover, the Senate voted on May 27 to let law enforcement agencies get access to Americans’ Internet browsing and search history data without procuring a warrant. This came as part of the revision of the Patriotic Act, which had been implemented in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

China: 1984 for Exports

China hosts by far the most Internet users in the world. But surprisingly its penetration rate is not that great. According to Internet World Stats, only 60% of Chinese people have access to the Internet. For comparison, in the U.S. 90% of residents are Internet users.

China’s Internet is very different from what the rest of the world is used to. It has the most advanced system controlling the network’s national segment since it was created under the government’s supervision within the framework of the so-called “Golden Shield” project. It is an overarching system that includes many surveillance and control tools from spotting and reporting offenses, to user identification, to content monitoring and traffic management.

Since 1995, China has quickly connected to the Internet but the attitude of the Chinese authorities toward it was rather wary. Identifying the potential dangers of the global Internet network, the Chinese government has established strict control over the Internet.

In 1998, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security embarked on the notorious Golden Shield Project. Over the next 10 years, the project was carefully ironed out and in 2011 it was approved by the State Council. Golden Shield Project is a censorship system for Internet content and the so-called “Great Firewall” of China is only a part of this monumental construct.

Its most obvious goal is to block foreign sites and control cross-border traffic. But Golden Shield is not only about blocking. It is also a comprehensive surveillance system, including end-to-end user identification (passport authentication), anti-virus systems, intrusion monitoring, content filtering, video monitoring, and even face recognition systems and as of late—a ready-to-go infrastructure for Chinese social credit system.

Golden Shield went online in 2003 as a means to establish the country’s “cyber-sovereignty.” The project created a system of special servers between Chinese providers and global networks. The Great Firewall blocked access to a number of foreign resources and filtered foreign content by keywords defined by state security agencies.

Chinese people were denied access to all major Western social networks and e-mail services, streaming services, messengers, many news publications, and, of course, all porn.

This led to the increased popularity of VPN services in the country. To combat this trend China had cracked down on all VPNs and even took the steps to remove all VPN apps from China’s Apple store. That being said, there is apparently a lot of gray area in Chinese VPN ban enforcement and VPN still can be used in China, admittedly to the user’s peril.

In 2017, China’s Internet Security Law entered into force. The law claimed to be protecting the privacy of citizens and sovereignty of the Chinese Internet. To achieve this, the state forced companies to store user data, including all information pertaining to user activities, on servers located in China. Companies were also forced to “work” with the authorities on criminal investigations. Many commenters slammed this law as a subtle “back door” through which the Chinese government will be able to access confidential information.

At the same time, the Chinese government introduced mandatory identification of Internet users who wanted to use online services, where users could leave comments. All such web resources were required to introduce a procedure for linking real passport data with user accounts in order to authenticate their identity. By 2019 this system evolved to require face recognition for calls and Internet access. The procedure of purchasing a new phone number was supplemented with a mandatory face scan. The new legislation also prohibited Chinese citizens from sharing their mobile phone numbers with other people.

Further research led to the development of new surveillance and control systems, like emotion recognition.

Finally, with the advent of the сoronavirus, the Chinese government denied its citizens the right to criticize its actions online.

Even now, in an attempt to “reinvent the Internet” China introduced a new cutting-edge Internet protocol, which along with many advantages offers the authorities more opportunities for total censorship of the global network.

Many experts believe the Chinese model is not scalable. This opinion is based on the fact that no other country in the world has the political will and sufficient resources to create such a self-sufficient Intranet and such a perfect system of control and blocking without seriously crippling its economy. This, however, never stopped China from attempting to export its model to other countries, most notably in Africa.

In addition to that, China exports its surveillance technologies even to the democratic West, like the French city of Marseille where state-backed company Huawei installs its equipment for a public surveillance network.

The European Union in Middle Way

European lawmakers have arguably been the most active in terms of creating and enacting rules aimed to protect privacy, net neutrality, and fair competition online. The EU is considered the international trendsetter for internet laws.

One of the bigger ones is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) implemented back in May 2018 to replace the obsolete Data Protection Directive. The GDPR requires companies that collect and process users’ personal data have to clearly disclose how they do it, for what reason, and what data they collect, while also gaining clear consent from the users. According to the GDPR, personal information has to be pseudonymized so that it can’t be attributed to a particular person if something goes wrong. On top of that, the regulation limits the purposes for which the data can be collected and stored and obliges companies to have appropriate cybersecurity measures in place.

Under the GDPR, users have the right to access all the information collected on them and the right to take that information and move it somewhere else, akin to downloading your Facebook profile data. There’s also the right of erasure that empowers users to request the erasure of any personal information pertaining to them.

Despite concerning people and companies in the EU and the European Economic Area, the GDPR enactment impacted all foreign companies willing to serve customers in the EU. Similarly, internet users from all over the world may have noticed how the websites they visit started updating their privacy policies to comply with the rules.

The EU-wide net neutrality rules are outlined in Article 3 of EU Regulation 2015/2120. As expected, these rules require internet service providers to treat all traffic on the net equally. This means that ISP’s can’t purposefully tweak prices. limit connection speed or block access for particular users or websites based on their location, content, devices involved, etc. In fairness, the EU net neutrality law has apparent loopholes allowing one to give special treatment to particular services and the Parliament still has to fix those. Although, there are also local rules adopted by the individual member-countries: Netherlands and Slovenia have their own stronger net neutrality laws, while several other countries are working on their versions of the legislation.

There is also the somewhat controversial Copyright Directive of 2019 meant to ensure fair compensation for content creators and protection for their work. The Directive included certain positives, such as special exemptions for educational uses of protected content and bargaining rights for content creators, but also substantial negatives: the so-called “link tax” and “upload filter” rules that came into the final legislation as Articles 15 and 17. Effectively, the link tax rule allowed publishers to charge news aggregators for posting snippets of their stories, while the upload filter rule forced user-generated content aggregators to do a better job of preventing users from uploading copyright-infringing content. Both issues raised substantial concerns among the general public, tech companies, and human rights activists.

European lawmakers took their job seriously but some experts argue that it came at a cost of stifling innovation and there’s still a lot to improve. With more complex compliance requirements, more rules to observe, and more checks to pass, small startups naturally have a harder time taking off. This may be putting the EU-based businesses at a disadvantage compared to their foreign competitors operating in less policed jurisdictions.

Can Democracy Win War?

The ongoing tsunami of state-backed propaganda; the dissemination of false statements and conspiracy theories; the expansion of surveillance technologies; and the promotion of the concept of “sovereign internet” which basically means creating several separate internets build up the backbone of the authoritarian approach in the cyberspace as manifested by the policies of China and Russia.

The traditionally democratic West cannot adopt the same approach to combat those actions, otherwise, it will put itself in a weakened position, as the former NSC and U.S. Department of State specialist Laura Rosenberger suggests.

Still, as long as the United States adheres to the surveillance capitalism model, it will remain inept to actually tackle the new challenges of our century. The European model, while it seems to go somewhere between the American and Chinese extremes, still inclines to the regulatory approach that eventually enhances the role of national (or supranational) actors in actually governing cyberspace.

In her article, Rosenberger suggests a different approach that would be fitting to the democratic narrative while avoiding the pitfalls of excessive regulation. And this approach surprisingly falls in line with the ideals of so-called crypto-anarchists, who at the first glance couldn’t be farther from a former NSC official.

What she proposes is basically giving the people control over their personal data and depriving large corporations of their self-proclaimed duty to do so. She calls for “an updated information model that reflects democratic principles and puts individuals, not companies or governments, in control of how their data are collected and used” adding that this would particularly require “emerging technologies.”

Democracy at its core is the ability of people to have and exercise the right to live the way they want. Freedom, on the other hand, is not the right to do anything you want but the right not to do things that you don’t want. They are not the same, but in today’s world, they cannot do without each other.

Neither state control nor corporate surveillance offers anything of the sort. While they may be different in detail, at their core, they take freedom away from people for whatever reason (mainly power and money respectively). As long as there is no widespread solution to the problem of granting online freedom, the internet war will continue.

Democracy, however, can only win if people get control of their information back. Whether it’s possible, through blockchain technology, some progressive regulation, or by some other means, remains to be seen. Until then, democracy will remain in jeopardy at best.

by Ana Alexandre, Constantine Golubev, Krzystof Shpak, and Jenny Aysgarth

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