Liu Hu is an investigative reporter in China, a dangerous profession. In 2015, a court found him guilty of libel, and he has been suffering ever since. In September, he told Australia’s ABC that his tormentors aren’t vindictive party officials or security forces; they’re apps. When he tries to buy a train ticket, the app simply refuses to give him one.
Hu claims he is a victim of China’s social credit system, a kafkaesque expansion of credit scores into all realms of life. Systems like these have made China a poster child for technology-reliant authoritarian governance. But it is far from the only one. Throughout the world, oppressive governments are weaponizing the tools of the information age to control, rather than liberate, while writing laws that make it easier for them to do so.
In the past few years, Kazakhstan has created and enforced laws that criminalize certain forms of online speech. In Russia, authorities have cracked down on comically innocuous Facebook posts, sending chilling effects throughout society. For some governments, a simple copyright claim has served as an effective censorship tool. Authoritarians have even learned to co-opt fears about disinformation and cyberattacks. Egypt and Singapore have enacted or proposed “fake news” legislation that has critics crying censorship, while Vietnam cites cybersecurity as it forces companies to store data locally, potentially imperiling user privacy.
Internet platforms, especially those created in the West, like to portray themselves as champions of democracy. Indeed, many repressive regimes feel threatened enough to block them outright. But over time, some regimes have entered into working relationships with these platforms. In the United Arab Emirates, Facebook admits that it blocks content ”attacking members of the royal family, which is against local laws.”
The internet first took hold in Western democracies, but as it spreads to other kinds of political systems and legal climates, its political nature is liable to change. As China becomes a major high-tech rival to the US, it has begun to push its favored doctrine of “cyber-sovereignty,” the notion that governments should be able to regulate and manage their country’s internet on their own terms. To nations wary of liberal democracy, it is a compelling vision of what the internet could be.
As authoritarian governments learn to live with the internet, what tools, legal or political, do they use to contain its disruptive potential? How do Western technology companies deal with censorious policies? In short, what happens when an open platform meets an authoritarian state?