Digital authoritarianism is “the use of digital information technology by authoritarian regimes to surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations”. Essentially it refers to the use of digital and technological means to increase control and limit the freedom and rights of citizens. For example, digital authoritarianism entails actions such as; limiting internet freedom, internet access and free speech online, collecting personal data for illegitimate purposes, surveillance and tracking of online activities, especially those of regime critics. We can sums up digital authoritarianism in six different techniques: surveillance, censorship, social manipulation and harassment, cyberattacks, internet shutdowns and targeted persecution against online users. When discussing digital authoritarianism, we shall also repeatedly refer to “digital authoritarian tools”, “authoritarian technology” or “repressive tools/technology”. With this we can refer to the different digital technologies that are being used or could be used for authoritarian purposes. When we use these terms, we refer “broadly to digital communication technologies, including methods, systems, and devices used for storage, transmission and retrieval of information”. If we talk about “Freedom on the Net” then it is reported that digital authoritarianism is a threat to democracy and human rights. Securing internet freedom is said to be one of the most important actions to protect against digital authoritarianism, as well as an important step to protect democracies. In the report it is argued that “If democracy is to survive the digital age, technology companies, governments, and civil society must work together to find real solutions to the problems of social media manipulation and abusive data collection”. They have also identified a trend where digital technologies have repeatedly been framed as a way to control citizens. For example, the companies selling these technologies. The report also gives several examples of ways in which digital authoritarianism is threatening human rights; (1) content manipulation has been used to encourage violent attacks on ethnic and religious minorities. (2) Implementation of restrictive social media laws, that for instance obstructs free online speech, the spread of independent news and allows for critics to be detained for spreading (what the authoritarian regime calls) fake news. Also, the implementation of laws that increase surveillance, censorship or is restricting individuals’ rights to be anonymous. (3) Surveillance systems, such as China’s Social Credit System, are being used for several repressive purposes. For example, to target political activists or a whole group of people, as seen in Xinjiang. Even though its original purpose was to improve public safety. (4) The use of different digital tools to target, harass and obstruct for example, government critics and human rights groups. (5) Information gathered online and through databases has shown to lead to the physical harm, or detention of individuals. (6) Blocking and restricting social, political or religious information online or that entire social media and communication platforms are blocked from being used. (7) Deliberate shutdown of mobile networks, internet access and communications apps, for example during riots and protests. This has occurred in for example India and Sri Lanka.
The several researchers/investigators have written about ‘digital unfreedom’ and focuses on the role that Artificial Intelligence (AI) has played in reshaping the methods used by digital authoritarian regimes to repress their citizens, to stay in power. The researcher/investigator points out that the use of AI and other digital tools are often motivated by public security reasons, but at the same time, it has a clear backside that allows these tools to be valuable repressive assets to regimes. The researcher/investigator argues that this is affecting the relationship between the state and its citizens and ultimately these tools are “accelerating a global resurgence of digital authoritarianism”. The researcher/investigator argues that these digital tools have allowed authoritarian regimes to achieve “new levels of control and manipulation” as well as being a “game-changer for the authoritarian effort to shape discourse and crush opposition voices”. The researcher/investigator also emphasises that AI has many benefits for all governments, but that it has more potential to be especially beneficial for authoritarian regimes. This is explained by the fact that these regimes rely to a high extent on coercion and co-optation to keep their power and AI technology can be extremely helpful for those purposes. This is because AI can reduce costs and make these practices less dependent on human agents and the rather inflexible structures of defence and security forces. AI systems make these functions and mechanisms automated and analyse data and changes in situations through a much wider scope, which gives insights that would not be possible from simply the observations made by individuals in the security forces. The researcher/investigator highlights three main areas where AI systems can give an important advantage for authoritarian regimes; (1) to keep tabs on popular discontent and controlling mass protest, (2) to keep potentially unstable regions in check, and (3) to use disinformation to delegitimize opponents. The researcher/investigator raises some concerns about this trend and argues that the spread of these AI technologies, as well as the rise of digital repression overall, is posing some serious challenges to liberal democracies. Advanced AI systems can also be used for manipulating information online, as well as for creating widespread disinformation campaigns. With AI systems there is also a risk of democracies becoming more repressive, and it is especially dangerous for fragile democracies.
The researcher/investigator has studied how technological advances will affect human rights and authoritarian rule in the future. Their main findings indicate that new technology is strengthening authoritarian control by “facilitating a wide range of human rights abuses” and that these newer technologies are increasing the levels of which opposition groups are prevented from mobilizing. This is because it allows authoritarian regimes to monitor and track their opponents and effectively crush any organized opposition before it even becomes a real problem for the regime. The researchers /investigators call this “preventive repression” and point out how new technologies allow authoritarian regimes to exercise preventive repression at a much higher rate, with more tools, and at a significantly lower cost than before. Their study also shows that authoritarian regimes with the power to completely ban certain technologies are more likely to stay in power for a longer time. They conclude that it is highly likely that these kinds of human rights abuses will increase in the future and that “The future of human rights, and perhaps the future of democracy, depends in large part on the ways in which new technologies are changing the relationship between state and society.”
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