The U.S.-led global order has a distinct aversion to authoritarianism, and with good reason. The centralization of political power in the hands of a single individual or political party offends liberal democratic sensibilities. It also often leads to political regimes that are oppressive at home and aggressive abroad. But that’s not always the case. There is nothing stopping authoritarian regimes from maintaining peace or ensuring the equitable application of the rule of law any more than a democratic government can guarantee that a particular country will be peaceful or ensure the liberty of all of its citizens equally. Critics of authoritarianism are actually thinking of something more sinister: totalitarianism, an authoritarian regime in which the leadership wants total control over not just the state but the individual.
Totalitarianism is supposed to be virtually impossible in the 21st century. The totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia came of age in the first half of the 20th century – while television was in its infancy and well before the advent of the internet. These regimes were able to completely control the information their citizens consumed, which played a major role in their ability to ensure, if not domestic legitimacy, then at least the population’s slavish compliance with government directives. North Korea is the one truly totalitarian state left standing today – and the cost of maintaining this system has been its almost complete isolation from the international economic order, leaving most North Koreans brainwashed, poor and malnourished. The rising tide of economic growth was supposed to lift all boats, and the widening availability of information via the internet was supposed to be an inoculation against the re-emergence of such regimes.
It isn’t quite working that way.
Last week, the RBK Group, a Russian media firm, reported that the Russian government is preparing to temporarily disconnect the country from the internet to test the resilience of Russia’s internet space should an external aggressor sever Russia’s connection with the global internet. The test, expected to take place sometime before April 1, is the latest in a series of Russian moves to build an independent, distinctly Russian internet infrastructure. Russia portrays the development of this infrastructure as a defensive necessity, forced upon it by an increasingly aggressive United States, which, along with its allies, could manipulate the internet to damage Russian interests. Russia is not wrong about that, but there’s more to what Moscow is doing than just planning for contingencies.
Russia has made strengthening its internet infrastructure a national priority since at least 2014, when its Communications Ministry simulated the effects of being disconnected from the internet and relying on a domestic backup system. In October 2017, the Security Council of Russia urged the government to develop an independent internet infrastructure, and President Vladimir Putin mandated its creation by August 2018. In December 2018, a bill was proposed in the Russian State Duma that would create the Digital Economy National Program and introduce significant changes to Russia’s internet infrastructure, internet providers and telecommunications firms. The cutoff experiment is meant to provide Russian lawmakers with information to modify the proposed law on its second reading.
Some aspects of the bill are indeed aimed at making Russia’s internet a more self-reliant system. The bill includes a requirement that Russia develop a national domain name system. If you are reading this article on Geopolitical Futures’ website, you got here because the internet’s domain name system correctly interpreted the characters you typed into your web browser to direct you to our internet protocol address. What scares Moscow is that none of the 12 organizations that oversee the root servers for the DNS are in Russia; if Russia were cut off from the DNS, its access to information outside the country would be severed, and the effects would be disastrous. (In 2018, 5.1 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product came from the digital economy, a sector that’s becoming more and more critical as Russia tries to wean itself off oil.) One key aspect of the internet cutoff test will be how well Russia has managed to copy the information onto its domestic servers and how effectively the internet can work in Russia if relying on its own databases.
But there are other aspects of the Digital Economy National Program that are scarcely related to defending Russia’s cyber interests. All internet traffic in Russia will now be routed not by established network operators but by Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, or Roskomnadzor – which will also be given authority to take over the entire system if a “threat” to the Russian internet emerges. All Russian network operators will have to install unidentified “special technical means” provided by Roskomnadzor that, when activated, will enable Roskomnadzor to block traffic from abroad. In effect, Russia’s new independent internet infrastructure is being constructed by authoritarian design and with totalitarian potential.
The changes could have a huge effect on how Russians use the internet. Currently, neither Roskomnadzor nor Putin himself can decide to ban Russians’ access to any given website. Only Russia’s courts have the authority to decide if a particular website or internet service is illegal. This draft law not only has the potential to change that hierarchy – it also mandates the technical and infrastructural changes necessary for Roskomnadzor to block certain websites or services with ruthless efficiency. Last year, for example, a court ordered the messaging app Telegram blocked for use in Russia because the service wouldn’t hand over its encryption keys to the Federal Security Service. Not only was Roskomnadzor unable to prevent Russians from using the app but, in attempting to do so, the agency inadvertently blocked access to everything from academic journals to Russian search engines like Yandex. The measures Russia is testing are meant to make such efforts more effective.
Russia is an authoritarian state largely by necessity. Its brief experiments with popular rule were short-lived and often resulted in chaos, violence and rampant corruption. Because of Russia’s size and diversity, authoritarianism has often been accompanied by totalitarian impulses, carried out by the Tsar’s Okhrana or the Soviet Union’s NKVD. Russia under Putin has, by and large, not succumbed to such heavy-handed tools. It was enough that Putin’s regime was seen as returning order and security to Russian society after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and then restoring Russia’s rightful place in the world as a major global power. But as Russia’s challenges have grown starker, and its government’s ability to meet them has lagged, there is less tolerance for dissent – and perhaps even less tolerance for Russian citizens to send messages or visit websites as they choose.
Russia is just the most recent example of a country restricting internet access. China, for instance, has been cracking down on the internet for decades. (Indeed, Russia’s steps to gain the power to block Russian citizens from accessing certain information mirror those taken by China.) Yet even with the Great Firewall in place, people in China have found ample ways to get around some of the Communist Party’s restrictions. In the years before Xi Jinping became president in 2012, many Chinese citizens were becoming more active on social media, at times even using the internet to criticize their government. It’s a sign of how much China has changed in the seven years since Xi came to power that such online criticism is becoming unimaginable.
Xi has taken a number of steps to police both how Chinese individuals behave online and what kind of information they can access. Soon after coming to power, Xi’s government issued the “seven baselines” – a set of regulations that provide internet users with guidelines for creating a “healthy online environment.” As a result, hundreds of thousands of Chinese accounts on various Chinese social media websites were eliminated. In 2015, China cracked down on providers of virtual private networks, which allow users to visit websites that the Great Firewall blocked. In 2017, Bloomberg reported that China had ordered three major state-owned telecommunications firms to bar individuals from using VPNs. The government denied releasing the order, but Xi has not been bashful about his objectives, telling the World Internet Conference in 2015 that he would not allow anyone to threaten China’s cyber sovereignty.
But the very idea of cyber sovereignty is strange. The internet is by definition not sovereign at all – it is a global network of computers connected by undersea cables and satellites in space. The internet is powerful because it belongs to no country in particular. Never before have human beings had such fast and easy access to information. And it is precisely that kind of freedom that China’s government fears. Xi is facing the extremely difficult task of simultaneously overhauling China’s economy and reinvigorating the Communist Party’s legitimacy – and to do so, Xi thinks he must control how average Chinese citizens think and what they believe. From northwestern Xinjiang province to Beijing’s most prestigious universities, from newspapers to the internet, Xi’s crackdown has been wide-ranging and part of a strategy to exert total control. In the end, Xi is not just blocking Chinese citizens from seeing certain websites. Because of how important the internet has become, he is controlling what information Chinese citizens know and using the internet to define what it means to be Chinese in the first place.
One should not take comfort in the notion that this is happening only in authoritarian countries like Russia and China. The kind of thought homogenization that these countries are pursuing does not only happen from the top down; it can just as well spring from the bottom up. In the U.S., the National Security Agency can monitor most of what U.S. citizens access on the web – a 2013 Wall Street Journal report estimated that 75 percent of U.S. internet traffic can be monitored by the NSA. Unlike in Russia or China, there is no political impetus for U.S. institutions to control what American citizens can access through the internet in such a heavy-handed way. But that doesn’t necessarily eliminate the underlying problem. The Chinese and Russian governments are policing what their people can access on the internet out of fear of independent thought, which might lead to opposition to their regimes. In the United States, the problem is not a would-be totalitarian dictator barring independent thought, but the lack of such thought altogether.
When an internet user in the U.S. searches a topic on Google, the search engine often produces thousands or even millions of results. Most of the time, users don’t actually go through all of them; a website called Advanced Web Ranking, which keeps track of what U.S. users click on when they Google something, found that 75 percent of users click on one of the first five things the search engine spits out. In a sense, the information that the average American consumes on Google is not necessarily the most accurate or insightful – it is the information that Google’s algorithm has decided is most useful. The same goes for Facebook, Twitter or any other social media sites. What users consume is defined by algorithms designed by coders holed up on their corporate campuses. What good is access to everything if no one ever accesses it? The internet has democratized information, not knowledge. What information Americans seek out is determined by preconceived notions about how things should be rather than by a rigorous search for what is. On the left, Americans want safe spaces to avoid those with whom they disagree. On the right, anyone who disagrees is simply fake news.
In 2006, the British-American scholar Tony Judt gave a remarkably prescient speech at New York University. It was the same year that Twitter was founded and just a year before the first iPhone was sold. Yet, even without these now-ubiquitous tools of American society – tools that allow Americans to access the internet at will and tweet vile things to each other – he seemed to see quite clearly that the United States faced a daunting problem: “What is at issue in America today is not the will to power of an abusive state, but the will to ignorance of society.” Judt invoked the great British historian Edward Gibbon and his study of the decline of the Roman Empire when he said Emperor Augustus “knew that the people would submit to slavery provided that they were repeatedly assured that they enjoyed all their ancient freedom.” The internet has not prevented successive U.S. presidents from repeatedly deploying U.S. military might abroad without Congressional approval. It has not stopped successive U.S. presidents from using executive orders to pursue issues far outside their purview. If anything, the internet has nurtured the kind of factions in the U.S. whose effects the government is supposed to control, not amplify, with the powerful in Washington slaves to whichever faction put them there.
The internet, like any technology, is a tool. It can be used by dictators to control thoughts and beliefs. It can be used by demagogues to whip up the prejudices of the masses. It can be used by countries to attack one another. It can be used by scientists to share important research and data. And it can be used to connect different people from different parts of the world. When used to weaponize information, the internet can construct 21st-century cults of personality. In its passive existence, the internet can lead to a kind of groupthink, a herd mentality that dulls one’s sense of the real world. Why, after all, should one seek out uncomfortable truths when there are so many cat videos and Larry Bird highlight reels to peruse on YouTube? The greatest source of political power has always been information, and the internet is the greatest tool for transmitting information since the printing press was invented. For better or for worse, individuals cannot live without it and states are learning new ways to use it for old, familiar purposes.