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Far from being made obsolete by the Internet, authoritarian regimes are now actively shaping cyberspace to their own strategic advantage. This article argues that cyberspace authoritarianism has evolved over at least three generations of information controls. Moreover, authoritarians have developed an arsenal that extends from technical measures, laws, policies, and regulations, to more covert and offensive techniques, such as targeted malware attacks and campaigns to coopt social media. The article outlines the driving forces behind resurgent authoritarianism in cyberspace and questions what can be done to counter the tightening grip of authoritarians on cyberspace.

December 2014 marked the fourth anniversary of the Arab Spring. Beginning in December 2010, Arab peoples seized the attention of the world by taking to the Internet and the streets to press for change. They toppled regimes once thought immovable, including that of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Four years later, not only is Cairo’s Tahrir Square empty of protesters, but the Egyptian army is back in charge. Invoking the familiar mantras of antiterrorism and cybersecurity, Egypt’s new president, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has imposed a suite of information controls.1 Bloggers have been arrested and websites blocked; suspicions of mass surveillance cluster around an ominous-sounding new “High Council of Cyber Crime.” The very technologies that many heralded as “tools of liberation” four years ago are now being used to stifle dissent and squeeze civil society. The aftermath of the Arab Spring is looking more like a cold winter, and a potent example of resurgent authoritarianism in cyberspace.

Authoritarianism means state constraints on legitimate democratic political participation, rule by emotion and fear, repression of civil society, and the concentration of executive power in the hands of an unaccountable elite. At its most extreme, it encompasses totalitarian states such as North Korea, but it also includes a large number of weak states and “competitive authoritarian” regimes.2 Once assumed to be incompatible with today’s fast-paced media environment, authoritarian systems of rule are showing not only resilience, but a capacity for resurgence. Far from being made obsolete by the Internet, authoritarian regimes are now actively shaping cyberspace to their own strategic advantage. This shaping includes technological, legal, extralegal, and other targeted information [End Page 64] controls. It also includes regional and bilateral cooperation, the promotion of international norms friendly to authoritarianism, and the sharing of “best” practices and technologies.

The development of several generations of information controls has resulted in a tightening grip on cyberspace within sovereign territorial boundaries. A major impetus behind these controls is the growing imperative to implement cybersecurity and antiterror measures, which often have the effect of strengthening the state at the expense of human rights and civil society. In the short term, the disclosures by Edward Snowden concerning surveillance carried out by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and its allies must also be cited as a factor that has contributed, even if unintentionally, to the authoritarian resurgence.

Liberal democrats have wrung their hands a good deal lately as they have watched authoritarian regimes use international organizations to promote norms that favor domestic information controls. Yet events in regional, bilateral, and other contexts where authoritarians learn from and cooperate with one another have mattered even more. Moreover, with regard to surveillance, censorship, and targeted digital espionage, commercial developments and their spinoffs have been key. Any thinking about how best to counter resurgent authoritarianism in cyberspace must reckon with this reality.

Mention authoritarian controls over cyberspace, and people often think of major Internet disruptions such as Egypt’s shutdown in late January and early February 2011, or China’s so-called Great Firewall. These are noteworthy, to be sure, but they do not capture the full gamut of cyberspace controls. Over time, authoritarians have developed an arsenal that extends from technical measures, laws, policies, and regulations, to more covert and offensive techniques such as targeted malware attacks and campaigns to coopt social media. Subtler and thus more likely to be effective than blunt-force tactics such as shutdowns, these measures reveal a considerable degree of learning. Cyberspace authoritarianism, in other words, has evolved over at least three generations of information controls.3

First-generation controls tend to be “defensive,” and involve erecting national cyberborders that limit citizens’ access to information from abroad. The archetypal example is the Great Firewall of China, a system for filtering keywords and URLs to control what computer users within the country can see on the Internet. Although few countries have matched the Great Firewall (Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, and Vietnam have come the closest), first-generation controls are common. Indeed, Internet filtering of one sort or another is now normal even in democracies.

Where countries vary is in terms of the content targeted for blocking and the transparency of filtering practices. Some countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, block content [End Page 65] related to the sexual exploitation of children as well as content that infringes copyrights. Other countries focus primarily on guarding religious sensitivities. Since September 2012, Pakistan has been blocking all of YouTube over a video, titled “Innocence of Muslims,” that Pakistani authorities deem blasphemous.4 A growing number of countries are blocking access to political and security-related content, especially content posted by opposition and human-rights groups, insurgents, “extremists,” or “terrorists.” Those last two terms are in quotation marks because in some places, such as the Gulf states, they are defined so broadly that content is blocked which in most other countries would fall within the bounds of legitimate expression.

National-level Internet filtering is notoriously crude. Errors and inconsistencies are common. One Citizen Lab study found that Blue Coat (a U.S. software widely used to automate national filtering systems) mistakenly blocked hundreds of nonpornographic websites.5 Another Citizen Lab study found that Oman residents were blocked from a Bollywood-related website not because it was banned in Oman, but because of upstream filtering in India, the pass-through country for a portion of Oman’s Internet traffic.6 In Indonesia, Internet-censorship rules are applied at the level of Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The country has more than three-hundred of these; what you can see online has much to do with which one you use.7 As censorship extends into social media and applications, inconsistencies bloom, as is famously the case in China. In some countries, a user cannot see the filtering, which displays as a “network error.” Although relatively easy to bypass and document,8 first-generation controls have won enough acceptance to have opened the door to more expansive measures.

Second-generation controls are best thought of as deepening and extending information controls into society through laws, regulations, or requirements that force the private sector to do the state’s bidding by policing privately owned and operated networks according to the state’s demands. Second-generation controls can now be found in every region of the world, and their number is growing. Turkey is passing new laws, on the pretext of protecting national security and fighting cybercrime, that will expand wiretapping and other surveillance and detention powers while allowing the state to censor websites without a court order. Ethiopia charged six bloggers from the Zone 9 group and three independent journalists with terrorism and treason after they covered political issues. Thailand is considering new cybercrime laws that would grant authorities the right to access emails, telephone records, computers, and postal mail without needing prior court approval. Under reimposed martial [End Page 66] law, Egypt has tightened regulations on demonstrations and arrested prominent bloggers, including Arab Spring icon Alaa Abd El Fattah. Saudi blogger Raif Badawi is looking at ten years in jail and 950 remaining lashes (he received the first fifty lashes in January 2015) for criticizing Saudi clerics online. Tunisia passed broad reforms after the Arab Spring, but even there a blogger has been arrested under an obscure older law for “defaming the military” and “insulting military commanders” on Facebook. Between 2008 and March 2015 (when the Supreme Court struck it down), India had a law that banned “menacing” or “offensive” social-media posts. In 2012, Renu Srinavasan of Mumbai found herself arrested merely for hitting the “like” button below a friend’s Facebook post. In Singapore, blogger and LGBT activist Alex Au was fined in March 2015 for criticizing how a pair of court cases was handled.

Second-generation controls also include various forms of “baked-in” surveillance, censorship, and “backdoor” functionalities that governments, wielding their licensing authority, require manufacturers and service providers to build into their products. Under new antiterrorism laws, Beijing recently announced that it would require companies offering services in China to turn over encryption keys for state inspection and build into all systems backdoors open to police and security agencies. Existing regulations already require social-media companies to survey and censor their own networks. Citizen Lab has documented that many chat applications popular in China come preconfigured with censorship and surveillance capabilities.9 For many years, the Russian government has required telecommunications companies and ISPs to be “SORM-compliant”—SORM is the Russian acronym for the surveillance system that directs copies of all electronic communications to local security offices for archiving and inspection. In like fashion, India’s Central Monitoring System gives the government direct access to the country’s telecommunications networks. Agents can listen in on broadband phone calls, SMS messages, and email traffic, while all call-data records are archived and analyzed. In Indonesia, where BlackBerry smartphones remain popular, the government has repeatedly pressured Canada-based BlackBerry Limited to comply with “lawful-access” demands, even threatening to ban the company’s services unless BlackBerry agreed to host data on servers in the country. Similar demands have come from India, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The company has even agreed to bring Indian technicians to Canada for special surveillance training.10

Also spreading are new laws that ban security and anonymizing tools, including software that permits users to bypass first-generation blocks. Iran has arrested those who distribute circumvention tools, and it has throttled Internet traffic to frustrate users trying to connect to popular circumvention and anonymizer tools such as Psiphon and Tor. Belarus and Russia have both recently proposed making Tor and similar tools illegal. China has banned virtual private networks (VPNs) nationwide—the [End Page 67] latest in a long line of such bans—despite the difficulties that this causes for business. Pakistan has banned encryption since 2011, although its widespread use in financial and other communications inside the country suggests that enforcement is lax. The United Arab Emirates has banned VPNs, and police there have stressed that individuals caught using them may be charged with violating the country’s harsh cybercrime laws.

Second-generation controls include finer-grained registration and identification requirements that tie people to specific accounts or devices, or even require citizens to obtain government permission before using the Internet. Pakistan has outlawed the sale of prepaid SIM cards and demands that all citizens register their SIM cards using biometric identification technology. The Thai military junta has extended such registration rules to cover free WiFi accounts as well. China has imposed real-name registration policies on Internet and social-media accounts, and companies have dutifully deleted tens of thousands of accounts that could not be authenticated. Chinese users must also commit to respect the seven “baselines,” including “laws and regulations, the Socialist system, the national interest, citizens’ lawful rights and interests public order, morals, and the veracity of information.”11

By expanding the reach of laws and broad regulations, second-generation controls narrow the space left free for civil society, and subject the once “wild frontier” of the Internet to growing regulation. While enforcement may be uneven, in country after country these laws hang like dark clouds over civil society, creating a climate of uncertainty and fear.

Authoritarians on the Offensive

Third-generation controls are the hardest to document, but may be the most effective. They involve surveillance, targeted espionage, and other types of covert disruptions in cyberspace. While first-generation controls are defensive and second-generation controls probe deeper into society, third-generation controls are offensive. The best known of these are the targeted cyberespionage campaigns that emanate from China. Although Chinese spying on businesses and governments draws most of the news reports, Beijing uses the same tactics to target human-rights, prodemocracy, and independence movements outside China. A recent four-year comparative study by Citizen Lab and ten participating NGOs found that those groups suffered the same persistent China-based digital attacks as governments and Fortune 500 companies.12 The study also found that targeted espionage campaigns can have severe consequences including disruptions of civil society and threats to liberty. At the very least, persistent cyberespionage attacks breed self-censorship and undermine the networking advantages that civil society might otherwise reap from digital media. Another Citizen Lab report found that China has employed a new attack tool, called “The Great Cannon,” which can [End Page 68] redirect the website requests of unwitting foreign users into denial-of-service attacks or replace web requests with malicious software.13

While other states may not be able to match China’s cyberespionage or online-attack capabilities, they do have options. Some might buy off-the-shelf espionage “solutions” from Western companies such as the United Kingdom’s Gamma Group or Italy’s Hacking Team—each of which Citizen Lab research has linked to dozens of authoritarian-government clients.14 In Syria, which is currently the site of a multisided, no-holds-barred regional war, security services and extremist groups such as ISIS are borrowing cybercriminals’ targeted-attack techniques, downloading crude but effective tradecraft from open sources and then using it to infiltrate opposition groups, often with deadly results.15 The capacity to mount targeted digital attacks is proving particularly attractive to regimes that face persistent insurgencies, popular protests, or other standing security challenges. As these techniques become more widely used and known, they create a chilling effect: Even without particular evidence, activists may avoid digital communication for fear that they are being monitored.

Third-generation controls also include efforts to aim crowdsourced antagonism at political foes. Governments recruit “electronic armies” that can use the very social media employed by popular opposition movements to discredit and intimidate those who dare to criticize the state.16 Such online swarms are meant to make orchestrated denunciations of opponents look like spontaneous popular expressions. If the activities of its electronic armies come under legal question or result in excesses, a regime can hide behind “plausible deniability.” Examples of progovernment e-warriors include Venezuela’s Chavista “communicational guerrillas,” the Egyptian Cyber Army, the pro-Assad Syrian Electronic Army, the pro-Putin bloggers of Russia, Kenya’s “director of digital media” Dennis Itumbi plus his bloggers, Saudi Arabia’s antipornography “ethical hackers,” and China’s notorious “fifty-centers,” so called because they are allegedly paid that much for each progovernment comment or status update they post.

Other guises under which third-generation controls may travel include not only targeted attacks on Internet users but wholesale disruptions of cyberspace. Typically scheduled to cluster before and during major political events such as elections, anniversaries, and public demonstrations, “justin-time” disruptions can be as severe as total Internet blackouts. More common, however, are selective disruptions. In Tajikistan, SMS services went down for several days leading up to planned opposition rallies in October 2014. The government blamed technical errors; others saw the hand of the state at work.17 Pakistan blocked all mobile services in its capital, Islamabad, for part of the day on 23 March 2015 in order to shield national-day parades from improvised explosive devices.18 During the 2014 prodemocracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, China closed access to the photo-sharing site Instagram. Telecommunications companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo were ordered to shut down all mobile [End Page 69] and SMS communications in response to antigovernment protests. Bangladesh ordered a ban on the popular smartphone messaging application Viber in January 2015, after it was linked to demonstrations.

To these three generations, we might add a fourth. This comes in the form of a more assertive authoritarianism at the international level. For years, governments that favor greater sovereign control over cyberspace have sought to assert their preferences—despite at times stiff resistance—in forums such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the United Nations (UN), and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).19 Although there is no simple division of “camps,” observers tend to group countries broadly into those that prefer a more open Internet and a limited role for states and those that prefer a state-led form of governance, probably under UN auspices.

The United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, and the Asian democracies line up most often behind openness, while China, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and various other nondemocracies fall into the latter group. A large number of emerging-market countries, led by Brazil, India, and Indonesia, are “swing states” that can go either way. Battle lines between these opposing views were becoming sharper around the time of the December 2012 World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT) in Dubai—an event that many worried would mark the fall of Internet governance into UN (and thus state) hands. But the WCIT process stalled, and lobbying by the United States and its allies (plus Internet companies such as Google) played a role in preventing fears of a state-dominated Internet from coming true.

If recent proposals on international cybersecurity submitted to the UN by China, Russia, and their allies tell us anything, future rounds of the cybergovernance forums may be less straightforward than what transpired at Dubai. In January 2015, the Beijing- and Moscow-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) submitted a draft “International Code of Conduct for Information Security” to the UN. This document reaffirms many of the same principles as the ill-fated WCIT Treaty, including greater state control over cyberspace.

Such proposals will surely raise the ire of those in the “Internet freedom” camp, who will then marshal their resources to lobby against their adoption. But will wins for Internet freedom in high-level international venues (assuming that such wins are in the cards) do anything to stop local and regional trends toward greater government control of the online world? Writing their preferred language into international statements may please Internet-freedom advocates, but what if such language merely serves to gloss over a ground-level reality of more rather than less state cyberauthority?

It is important to understand the driving forces behind resurgent authoritarianism in cyberspace if we are to comprehend fully the challenges ahead, the broader prospects facing human rights and democracy [End Page 70] promotion worldwide, and the reasons to suspect that the authoritarian resurgence in cyberspace will continue.

A major driver of this resurgence has been and likely will continue to be the growing impetus worldwide to adopt cybersecurity and antiterror policies. As societies come to depend ever more heavily on networked digital information, keeping it secure has become an ever-higher state priority. Data breaches and cyberespionage attacks—including massive thefts of intellectual property—are growing in number. While the cybersecurity realm is replete with self-serving rhetoric and threat inflation, the sum total of concerns means that dealing with cybercrime has now become an unavoidable state imperative. For example, the U.S. intelligence community’s official 2015 “Worldwide Threat Assessment” put cyberattacks first on the list of dangers to U.S. national security.20

It is crucial to note how laws and policies in the area of cybersecurity are combining and interacting with those in the antiterror realm. Violent extremists have been active online at least since the early days of al-Qaeda several decades ago. More recently, the rise of the Islamic State and its gruesome use of social media for publicity and recruitment have spurred a new sense of urgency. The Islamic State atrocities recorded in viral beheading videos are joined by (to list a few) terror attacks such as the Mumbai assault in India (November 2008); the Boston Marathon bombings (April 2013); the Westgate Mall shootings in Kenya (September 2013); the Ottawa Parliament shooting (October 2014); the Charlie Hebdo and related attacks in Paris (January 2015); repeated deadly assaults on Shia mosques in Pakistan (most recently in February 2015); and the depredations of Nigeria’s Boko Haram.

Horrors such as these underline the value of being able to identify, in timely fashion amid the wilderness of cyberspace, those bent on violence before they strike. The interest of public-safety officials in data-mining and other high-tech surveillance and analytical techniques is natural and understandable. But as expansive laws are rapidly passed and state-security services (alongside the private companies that work for and with them) garner vast new powers and resources, checks and balances that protect civil liberties and guard against the abuse of power can be easily forgotten. The adoption by liberal democracies of sweeping cybercrime and antiterror measures without checks and balances cannot help but lend legitimacy and normative support to similar steps taken by authoritarian states. The headlong rush to guard against extremism and terrorism worldwide, in other words, could end up providing the biggest boost to resurgent authoritarianism.

Regional Security Cooperation as a Factor

While international cyberspace conferences attract attention, often overlooked are regional security forums. The latter are the places where cybersecurity coordination happens. They are focused sites of learning [End Page 71] and norm promotion where ideas, technologies, and “best” practices are exchanged. Even countries that are otherwise rivals can and do agree and cooperate within the context of such security forums.

The SCO, to name one prominent regional group, boasts a well-developed normative framework that calls upon its member states to combat the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. The upshot has been information controls designed to bolster regime stability against opposition groups and the claims of restive ethnic minorities. The SCO recently held joint military exercises in order to teach its forces how to counter Internet-enabled opposition of the sort that elsewhere has led to “color revolutions.” The Chinese official who directs the SCO’s “Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure” (RATS) told the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee that RATS had “collected and distributed to its Member States intelligence information regarding the use of the Internet by terrorist groups active in the region to promote their ideas.”21

Such information may include intelligence on individuals involved in what international human-rights law considers legitimate political expression. Another Eurasian regional security organization in which Russia plays a leading role, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), has announced that it will be creating an “international center to combat cyber threats.”22 Both the SCO and the CSTO are venues where commercial platforms for both mass and targeted surveillance are sold, shared, and exchanged. The telecommunications systems and ISPs in each of the five Central Asian republics are all “SORM-compliant”—ready to copy all data routinely to security services, just as in Russia. The SCO and CSTO typically carry out most of their deliberations behind closed doors and release no disclosures in English, meaning that much of what they do escapes the attention of Western observers and civil society groups.

The regional cybersecurity coordination undertaken by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) offers another example. In 2014, the GCC approved a long-awaited plan to form a joint police force, with headquarters in Abu Dhabi. While the fights against drug dealing and money laundering are to be among the tasks of this Gulf Interpol, the new force will also have the mission of battling cybercrime. In the Gulf monarchies, however, online offenses are defined broadly and include posting items that can be taken as critical of royal persons, ruling families, or the Muslim religion. These kingdoms and emirates have long records of suppressing dissent and even arresting one another’s political opponents. Whatever its other law-enforcement functions, the GCC version of Interpol is all too likely to become a regional tool for suppressing protest and rooting out expressions of discontent.

“Flying under the radar,” with little flash, few reporters taking notice, and lots of closed meetings carried on in local languages by like-minded officials from neighboring authoritarian states, organizations concerned with regional governance and security attract far less attention than UN [End Page 72] conferences that seem poised to unleash dramatic Web takeovers which may never materialize. Yet it is in these obscure regional corners that the key norms of cyberspace controls may be taking shape and taking hold.

The Cybersecurity Market as a Factor

A third driving factor has to do with the rapid growth of digital connectivity in the global South and among the populations of authoritarian regimes, weak states, and flawed democracies. In Indonesia the number of Internet users increases each month by a stunning 800,000. In 2000, Nigeria had fewer than a quarter-million Internet users; today, it has 68 million. The Internet-penetration rate in Cambodia rose a staggering 414 percent from January 2014 to January 2015 alone. By the end of 2014, the number of mobile-connected devices exceeded the number of people on Earth. Cisco Systems estimates that by 2019, there will be nearly 1.5 mobile devices per living human. The same report predicts that the steepest rates of growth in mobile-data traffic will be found in the Middle East and Africa.23

Booming digital technology is good for economic growth, but it also creates security and governance pressure points that authoritarian regimes can squeeze. We have seen how social media and the like can mobilize masses of people instantly on behalf of various causes (prodemocratic ones included). Yet many of the very same technologies can also be used as tools of control. Mobile devices, with their portability, low cost, and light physical-infrastructure requirements, are how citizens in the developing world connect. These handheld marvels allow people to do a wealth of things that they could hardly have dreamt of doing before. Yet all mobile devices and their dozens of installed applications emit reams of highly detailed information about peoples’ movements, social relationships, habits, and even thoughts—data that sophisticated agencies can use in any number of ways to spy, to track, to manipulate, to deceive, to extort, to influence, and to target.

The market for digital spyware described earlier needs to be seen not only as a source of material and technology for countries who demand them, but as an active shaper of those countries’ preferences, practices, and policies. This is not to say that companies are persuading policy makers regarding what governments should do. Rather, companies and the services that they offer can open up possibilities for solutions, be they deep-packet inspection, content filtering, cellphone tracking, “big-data” analytics, or targeted spyware. SkyLock, a cellphone-tracking solution sold by Verint Systems of Melville, New York, purports to offer governments “a cost-effective, new approach to obtaining global location information concerning known targets.” Company brochures obtained by the Washington Post include “screen shots of maps depicting location tracking in what appears to be Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil, Congo, [End Page 73] the United Arab Emirates, Zimbabwe, and several other countries.”24

Large industry trade fairs where these systems are sold are also crucial sites for learning and information exchange. The best known of these, the Intelligence Support Systems (ISS) events, are run by TeleStrategies, Incorporated, of McLean, Virginia. Dubbed the “Wiretappers’ Ball” by critics, ISS events are exclusive conventions with registration fees high enough to exclude most attendees other than governments and their agencies. As one recent study noted, ISS serves to connect registrants with surveillance-technology vendors, and provides training in the latest industry practices and equipment.25 The March 2014 ISS event in Dubai featured one session on “Mobile Location, Surveillance and Signal Intercept Product Training” and another that promised to teach attendees how to achieve “unrivaled attack capabilities and total resistance to detection, quarantine and removal by any endpoint security technology.”26 Major corporate vendors of lawful-access, targeted-surveillance, and data-analytic solutions are fixtures at ISS meetings and use them to gather clients.

As cybersecurity demands grow, so will this market. Authoritarian policy makers looking to channel industrial development and employment opportunities into paths that reinforce state control can be expected to support local innovation. Already, schools of engineering, computer science, and data-processing are widely seen in the developing world as viable paths to employment and economic sustainability, and within those fields cybersecurity is now a major driving force. In Malaysia, for example, the British defense contractor BAE Systems agreed to underwrite a degree-granting academic program in cybersecurity in partial fulfillment of its “defense offsets” obligation.27 India’s new “National Cyber Security Policy” lays out an ambitious strategy for training a new generation of experts in, among other things, the fine points of “ethical hacking.” The goal is to give India an electronic army of high-tech specialists a half-million strong. In a world where “Big Brother” and “Big Data” share so many of the same needs, the political economy of cybersecurity must be singled out as a major driver of resurgent authoritarianism in cyberspace.

Edward Snowden as a Factor

Since June 2013, barely a month has gone by without new revelations concerning U.S. and allied spying—revelations that flow from the disclosures made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The disclosures fill in the picture of a remarkable effort to marshal extraordinary capacities for information control across the entire spectrum of cyberspace. The Snowden revelations will continue to fuel an important public debate about the proper balance to be struck between liberty and security.

While the value of Snowden’s disclosures in helping to start a long-needed discussion is undeniable, the revelations have also had unintended [End Page 74] consequences for resurgent authoritarianism and cyberspace. First, they have served to deflect attention away from authoritarian-regime cyberespionage campaigns such as China’s. Before Snowden fled to Hong Kong, U.S. diplomacy was taking an aggressive stand against cyberespionage. Individuals in the pay of the Chinese military and allegedly linked to Chinese cyberespionage were finding themselves under indictment. Since Snowden, the pressure on China has eased. Beijing, Moscow, and others have found it easy to complain loudly about a double standard supposedly favoring the United States while they rationalize their own actions as “normal” great-power behavior and congratulate themselves for correcting the imbalance that they say has beset cyberspace for too long.

Second, the disclosures have created an atmosphere of suspicion around Western governments’ intentions and raised questions about the legitimacy of the “Internet Freedom” agenda backed by the United States and its allies. Since the Snowden disclosures—revealing top-secret exploitation and disruption programs that in some respects are indistinguishable from those that Washington and its allies have routinely condemned—the rhetoric of the Internet Freedom coalition has rung rather hollow. In February 2015, it even came out that British, Canadian, and U.S. signals-intelligence agencies had been “piggybacking” on China-based cyberespionage campaigns—stealing data from Chinese hackers who had not properly secured their own command-and-control networks.28

Third, the disclosures have opened up foreign investment opportunities for IT companies that used to run afoul of national-security concerns. Before Snowden, rumors of hidden “backdoors” in Chinese-made technology such as Huawei routers put a damper on that company’s sales. Then it came out that the United States and allied governments had been compelling (legally or otherwise) U.S.-based tech companies to do precisely what many had feared China was doing—namely, installing secret backdoors. So now Western companies have a “Huawei” problem of their own, and Huawei no longer looks so bad.

In the longer term, the Snowden disclosures may have the salutary effect of educating a large number of citizens about mass surveillance. In the nearer term, however, the revelations have handed countries other than the United States and its allies an opportunity for the self-interested promotion of local IT wares under the convenient rhetorical guise of striking a blow for “technological sovereignty” and bypassing U.S. information controls.

There was a time when authoritarian regimes seemed like slow-footed, technologically challenged dinosaurs whom the Information Age was sure to put on a path toward ultimate extinction. That time is no more—these regimes have proven themselves surprisingly (and dismayingly) light-footed and adaptable. National-level information controls are now deeply entrenched and growing. Authoritarian regimes are becoming more active and assertive, sharing norms, technologies, and “best” practices with one [End Page 75] another as they look to shape cyberspace in ways that legitimize their national interests and domestic goals.

Sadly, prospects for halting these trends anytime soon look bleak. As resurgent authoritarianism in cyberspace increases, civil society will struggle: A web of ever more fine-grained information controls tightens the grip of unaccountable elites. Given the comprehensive range of information controls outlined here, and their interlocking sources deep within societies, economies, and political systems, it is clear that an equally comprehensive approach to the problem is required. Those who seek to promote human rights and democracy through cyberspace will err gravely if they stick to high-profile “Internet Freedom” conferences or investments in “secure apps” and digital training. No amount of rhetoric or technological development alone will solve a problem whose roots run this deep and cut across the borders of so many regions and countries.

What we need is a patient, multipronged, and well-grounded approach across numerous spheres, with engagement in a variety of venues. Researchers, investigative journalists, and others must learn to pay more attention to developments in regional security settings and obscure trade fairs. The long-term goal should be to open these venues to greater civil society participation and public accountability so that considerations of human rights and privacy are at least raised, even if not immediately respected.

The private sector now gathers and retains staggering mountains of data about countless millions of people. It is no longer enough for states to conduct themselves according to the principles of transparency, accountability, and oversight that democracy prizes; the companies that own and operate cyberspace—and that often come under tremendous pressure from states—must do so as well. Export controls and “smart sanctions” that target rights-offending technologies without infringing on academic freedom can play a role. A highly distributed, independent, and powerful system of cyberspace verification should be built on a global scale that monitors for rights violations, dual-use technologies, targeted malware attacks, and privacy breaches. A model for such a system might be found in traditional arms-control verification regimes such as the one administered by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Or it might come from the research of academic groups such as Citizen Lab, or the setup of national computer emergency-response teams (CERTs) once these are freed from their current subordination to parochial national-security concerns.29 However it is ultimately constituted, there needs to be a system for monitoring cyberspace rights and freedoms that is globally distributed and independent of governments and the private sector.

Finally, we need models of cyberspace security that can show us how to prevent disruptions or threats to life and property without sacrificing liberties and rights. Internet-freedom advocates must reckon with [End Page 76] the realization that a free, open, and secure cyberspace will materialize only within a framework of democratic oversight, public accountability, transparent checks and balances, and the rule of law. For individuals living under authoritarianism’s heavy hand, achieving such lofty goals must sound like a distant dream. Yet for those who reside in affluent countries, especially ones where these principles have lost ground to antiterror measures and mass-surveillance programs, fighting for them should loom as an urgent priority and a practically achievable first step on the road to remediation.

Ron Deibert

Ron Deibert is director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. He is the author of Black Code: Surveillance, Privacy, and the Dark Side of the Internet (2013). He was a co-founder and principal investigator of the OpenNet Initiative (2003–14).


The author wishes to thank Sarah McKune, Helmi Noman, Irene Poetranto, and John Scott Railton of Citizen Lab for comments and research assistance that they provided in the preparation of this essay.

1. Sam Kimball, “After the Arab Spring, Surveillance in Egypt Intensifies,” Intercept, 9 March 2015,

2. Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, “The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism,” Journal of Democracy 13 (April 2002): 51–65.

3. Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski, “Beyond Denial: Introducing Next Generation Information Access Controls,” Note that the “generations” of controls are not assumed to be strictly chronological: Governments can skip generations, and several generations can exist together. Rather, they are a useful heuristic device for understanding the evolution of information controls.

4. “YouTube to Remain Blocked ‘Indefinitely’ in Pakistan: Officials,” Dawn (Islamabad), 8 February 2015,

5. Bennett Haselton, “Blue Coat Errors: Sites Miscategorized as ‘Pornography,’” Citizen Lab, 10 March 2014,

6. “Routing Gone Wild: Documenting Upstream Filtering in Oman via India,” Citizen Lab, 12 July 2012,

7. “IGF 2013: Islands of Control, Island of Resistance: Monitoring the 2013 Indonesian IGF (Foreword),” Citizen Lab, 20 January 2014,

8. Masashi Crete-Nishihata, Ronald J. Deibert, and Adam Senft, “Not by Technical Means Alone: The Multidisciplinary Challenge of Studying Information Controls,” IEEE Internet Computing 17 (May–June 2013): 34–41.

10. Amol Sharma, “RIM Facility Helps India in Surveillance Efforts,” Wall Street Journal, 28 October 2011.

11. Rogier Creemers, “New Internet Rules Reflect China’s ‘Intent to Target Individuals Online,’” Deutsche Welle, 2 March 2015. [End Page 77]

12. Citizen Lab, “Communities @ Risk: Targeted Digital Threats Against Civil Society,” 11 November 2014,

13. Bill Marczak et al., “China’s Great Cannon,” Citizen Lab, 10 April 2015,

14. “For Their Eyes Only: The Commercialization of Digital Spying,” Citizen Lab, 30 April 2013,

15. “Malware Attack Targeting Syrian ISIS Critics,” Citizen Lab, 18 December 2014,

16. Seva Gunitzky, “Corrupting the Cyber-Commons: Social Media as a Tool of Autocratic Stability,” Perspectives on Politics 13 (March 2015): 42–54.

17. RFE/RL Tajik Service, “SMS Services Down in Tajikistan After Protest Calls,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 10 October 2014,

18. See “No Mobile Phone Services on March 23 in Islamabad,” Daily Capital (Islamabad), 22 March 2015,

19. Ronald J. Deibert and Masashi Crete-Nishihata, “Global Governance and the Spread of Cyberspace Controls,” Global Governance 18 (2012): 339–61,

20. See James R. Clapper, “Statement for the Record Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community,” Senate Armed Services Committee, 26 February 2015,

21. See “Counter-Terrorism Committee Welcomes Close Cooperation with the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” 24 October 2014,

22. See Joshua Kucera, “SCO, CSTO Increasing Efforts Against Internet Threats,” The Bug Pit, 16 June 2014,

23. See Cisco, “Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update 2014–2019,” white paper, 3 February 2015,

24. Craig Timberg, “For Sale: Systems That Can Secretly Track Where Cellphone Users Go Around the Globe,” Washington Post, 24 August 2014.

25. Collin Anderson, “Monitoring the Lines: Sanctions and Human Rights Policy Considerations of TeleStrategies ISS World Seminars,” 31 July 2014,

26. Anderson, “Monitoring the Lines.”

27. See Jon Grevatt, “BAE Systems Announces Funding of Malaysian Cyber Degree Programme,” IHS Jane’s 360, 5 March 2015,

28. Colin Freeze, “Canadian Agencies Use Data Stolen by Foreign Hackers, Memo Reveals” Globe and Mail (Toronto), 6 February 2015.

29. For one proposal along these lines, see Duncan Hollis and Tim Maurer, “A Red Cross for Cyberspace,” Time, 18 February 2015. [End Page 78]

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