What Countries Buy Into When They Buy Authoritarian Technologies

In February 2021, ASD held a security and geopolitics workshop as part of the Good Web project entitled “Authoritarian Models, Practices, and Threats,” in which participants discussed authoritarian Internet models and autocratic tendencies in the current Internet. Participants included experts in cybersecurity, cyber policy, internet governance, foreign policy, human rights, and media freedom, with regional expertise on China, Russia, Iran, the United States, India, Australia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa.

Key takeaway: Despite the concerning spread of authoritarian Internet technologies globally, a non-democratic future Internet is not a fait accompli. Authoritarians—China chief among them—are putting forward an argument for the future of the Internet that an authoritarian model is more efficient, but implementation challenges and barriers to uptake call into question that claim and provide an opening for democracies.

Why it matters for democracies: Democracies have an opportunity to fill gaps and create value in emerging Internet technologies. Looking forward, economic and geopolitical value may be increasingly defined by the ability to harness artificial intelligence and data. Whether efficiency alone will be the driving factor of Internet and technology innovation is a defining feature of the asymmetric competition between autocratic and democratic forms of government. Long-standing criticisms of democratic systems paint them as inefficient due to their need for checks and balances and deliberative process, in contrast with unilateral, centralized authoritarian decisions. The power of aggregated data and AI to drive centralized decision-making have given these criticisms renewed relevance. The success of democracies in this competition over emerging Internet technologies depends in part on whether they can mount a competitive challenge to—and poke holes in—the integrity and appeal of authoritarian offerings, both systemic and technical. 

What’s working for authoritarians: We cannot underestimate the importance of good service in the uptake of authoritarian technologies. For instance, the popularity of apps like WeChat in China and among the Chinese diaspora and Telegram in the former Soviet Union—and beyond—is driven in large part by their utility.

The Chinese government also seeks to use technology to improve governance. These efforts exist alongside but also independent of features that advantage censorship and surveillance. Capitalizing on a common global aspiration and the UN Sustainable Development Goal to improve governance, China’s “good governance” models could hold additional appeal for “authoritarian-curious” regimes experimenting with surveillance and more centralized control. Notable examples of these dual-use technologies include China’s smart and safe cities and data-driven government services.

Beijing’s investments in and export of digital infrastructure, such as through its Digital Silk Road, also represent a strong foundation for its ability to deploy its standards, principles, and norms globally, whether or not that was the original intention.

What isn’t working for authoritarians: 

  • It’s hard to implement authoritarian visions even internally. Authoritarian Internet implementation even domestically has challenges. In China, bureaucratic and technical integration of sophisticated surveillance systems has lagged their development. And bureaucratic fragmentation has complicated basic governance and adoption. And the fulfillment of Russia’s goal of digital sovereignty has come up against its infrastructural reliance on global technologies and a less robust domestic tech sector. Technical hurdles in realizing full Internet isolation remain. Corruption remains a risk to the achievement of bold national technology plans.
  • Challenges in external implementation. Less consolidated or more fragmented governments that import authoritarian technologies also run into difficulties replicating the Chinese technology and surveillance model, which relies on a high degree of centralization, government control of infrastructure, information integration, and an advanced technical toolkit.
  • Distrust in authoritarian relationships. Despite rising concerns of Russia-China collaboration in the technology and information spaces, a lack of trust in the relationship may impede the formation of a joint authoritarian model for the future Internet. Russia, for instance, is paying increasing attention to Chinese IP theft, and elements of the national security apparatus are wary of Chinese firms’ involvement in Russia’s 5G infrastructure.
  • Lack of a shared authoritarian vision. Finally, authoritarians likely do not have a shared vision for an “authoritarian Internet”—just some shared interests in information control and digital sovereignty. As is the case beyond the Internet and technology space, China and Russia occupy different geopolitical positions and have corresponding differences in the way they use the Internet to advance their strategic interests. At a high level, China is attempting to use the Internet and new technologies to shape global sentiment in a way that is beneficial to the Chinese Communist Party’s interests, while Russia has undertaken wide-ranging influence operations aimed at destabilizing democracies.

Bottom line: To compete effectively against authoritarian models, democracies need to be able to build and offer competitive technologies that are useful and user-friendly. As Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang has noted, a key difference between authoritarian and democratic models is that authoritarianism makes people transparent to governments, and democracy makes governments transparent to people. Putting democratic values and practices, such as transparency, participatory democracy, and the ability for recourse at the center of technologies’ design, rather than imposing constraints after the fact, may help steer technological development in this direction. Democracies also should look to examples in Taiwan and Estonia to fill gaps in effective techno-governance based in the democratic process and should exploit weaknesses in authoritarian Internet roll-outs. In implementing the latter strategy, it is essential to explore who benefits from authoritarian-style efficiency.

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.