The world is moving closer to a new cold war fought with authoritarian tech

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The world is moving closer to a new cold war fought with authoritarian tech
MIT Technology Review, September 22, 2022
Tech Policy
by Tate Ryan-Mosley

“At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, Iran, Turkey, and Myanmar promised tighter trade relationships with Russia and China.”


Despite President Biden’s assurances at Wednesday’s United Nations meeting that the US is not seeking a new cold war, one is brewing between the world’s autocracies and democracies—and technology is fuelling it.


Late last week, Iran, Turkey, Myanmar, and a handful of other countries took steps toward becoming full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an economic and political alliance led by the authoritarian-regimes of China and Russia.


The group, formed in 2001, has quickly become one of the most important forces in global politics and has indicated that technology is a big part of its strategic future. Although much of the SCO’s focus is on regional development, such as railways and trade agreements, it has been a key player in the proliferation of technologies designed for social control, which foreign policy experts call “digital authoritarianism.”


Following China’s lead, research shows that the majority of SCO member countries, as well as other authoritarian states, are quickly trending toward more digital rights abuses by increasing the mass digital surveillance of citizens, censorship, and controls on individual expression.


Democracies use massive amounts of surveillance technology as well, of course. The United States is one of the most surveilled countries in the world, and it buys much of that tech from China. Yet it’s the technology trade relationships between authoritarian countries everywhere—SCO members, as well as its allies—that are rapidly growing deeper, and such states have begun to adopt similar playbooks for digitally enabled social control.

What do we mean when we say “digital authoritarianism”?

Four years ago, Freedom House, a non-profit research and advocacy group for global democracy, focused on “the rise of digital authoritarianism” when it published its annual report on the state of freedom and the internet in 2018. As the report explains, “Digital authoritarianism is being promoted as a way for governments to control their citizens through technology, inverting the concept of the internet as an engine of human liberation.” Since then, this has been a common way for Washington to frame the US-China power competition in the tech realm.


There is a strong correlation between governance systems and the state of digital rights, with authoritarian regimes more likely than democratic regimes to use tech as another domain for social control.


Freedom House researchers have worked to quantify this phenomenon in its annual reports, scoring countries on a variety of factors—including privacy protections, censorship, and obstacles to internet access. Globally, scores have been on the decline for 11 consecutive years, meaning the world is generally trending away from an internet that protects the digital rights of users. None of the non-democratic countries were determined by Freedom House to have a “free” internet, whereas all the democratic countries were deemed either “free” or “partially free.”


All of the SCO’s eight current members—China, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, and Pakistan—consistently score poorly. Their scores declined an average of 10 points over the past decade.


China was ranked at the bottom of Freedom House’s report card last year, as it has been every year since 2014.


And while it’s not yet a full member of the SCO, Iran scored second to last. It’s no coincidence that its economic relationship with China has been heating up in recent years, and Iran has been one of many enthusiastic consumers of the superpower’s digital technology.

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About the Author:

Tate Ryan-Mosley is the senior tech policy reporter for MIT Technology Review. “I focus on the impact of new technologies on political systems, human rights and the health of global democracies. I’ve also worked on many of our podcasts and data journalism projects. Before I was a reporter for Tech Review, I was a researcher here working on special newsroom projects. Prior to journalism, I was a consultant on emerging tech strategy for large companies. In 2012, I was a fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, specializing in conflict and post-war development.”