The internet has become a tool for authoritarian repression

Senior Editor Andrew Tarantola Friday, March 26, 2021, 10:15 PM6 minute read

We were meant to be set free by the internet. Authoritarian regimes, on the other hand, have rapidly adapted long-held strategies to the modern era, relying on social structures and mores to retain their hold on captive populations. Although the internet and social media revolutions have provided activists new tools to better combat dictatorial overtures, they have also given anti-democratic despots new tools to more efficiently suppress opposition through digital surveillance, misinformation, and outright denial of internet access to their citizens.

During a recent SXSW 2021 panel discussion, Moira Whelan, Director of Democracy and Technology at the National Democratic Institute, said, “In 2019, we saw 1,706 days of internet service disruption and 213 internet shutdowns in 33 different countries.”

“These network shutdowns often occur during protests, elections — especially skewed elections — and instances of police violence, when authorities do not want images of their police brutally suppressing a peaceful protest broadcasted not only to their own citizens but to people all over the world,” Adrian Shahbaz, Director of Technology and Democracy at Freedom House, says.

“People are losing access to items like social media, but they can still go to ATMs, access educational materials, and even some phone or television services if the internet is down. Businesses lose the ability to connect with their customers and suppliers, and online banks lose the ability to operate,” he added. “This affects every industry,” says the author.

To retain power over their people, dictatorial regimes have historically restricted the flow of both external and internal knowledge — and thus influence. For example, in 2000, China’s autocracy launched the Golden Shield Project, which aimed to improve the effectiveness and responsiveness of the country’s national police force through “cyber sovereignty,” or state control over the internet.

That initial programme grew into what is now known as “The Great Firewall,” a nation-wide barrier separating domestic and foreign web traffic, with CCP censors in complete charge of what online information Chinese people have access to. “They have all kinds of laws and technological infrastructure in place to scrub the internet of anything that might be considered sensitive to get people thinking independently about the Chinese Communist Party or how things should be run,” Shahbaz explained. Of course, there are a plethora of online resources available to Chinese people to get around their government’s censorship policies.