Why Canada must confront the rise of digital authoritarianism

Digital technological advances can facilitate repression. Canada has a duty to ensure they don’t.

By: and /
November 18, 2020
John Lund/Getty Images

Authoritarian governments around the world are using emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, to expand their reach and undermine human rights. The term “digital authoritarianism” has unfortunately now entered our lexicon.

In a recent policy brief, “Exporting digital authoritarianism: The Russian and Chinese models,” Alina Polyakova and Chris Meserole of the Brookings Institution define digital authoritarianism as “the use of digital information technology by authoritarian regimes to surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations.”

The Hoover Institution, Stanford University and the Human Rights Foundation recently convened a group of experts who shed light on the reality that China has become a digital dystopian nightmare. The Chinese government employs facial recognition technologies to surveil and control its citizens. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the province of Xinjiang, where Uyghur Muslims are subjected to mass surveillance and detention on the basis of spurious “anti-terrorism” measures. Perhaps the most alarming takeaway was that “China’s digital authoritarianism is not just a part of a U.S.-China great power conflict — it is an attempt to completely realign the geopolitical world order against the democratic world. The U.S. and Europe can’t win that struggle on their own.”

In another disturbing development, it appears the Chinese data information technology company Zhenhua, which has close ties to Beijing and the Chinese military, was involved in collecting personal information of millions of people in various countries around the world, including Canada.

In Europe, officials are beginning to push back against the use of Chinese surveillance technologies. The European Union has contracted the services of the Chinese firm Hikvision to use thermal cameras to monitor and fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The head of the European Parliament’s China delegation, MEP Reinhard Bütifoker, told Deutsche Welle the use of Hikvision technology “points to a shameful lack of due diligence in procurement” because of Hikvision’s complicity in the oppression of the Uighur people in Xinjiang.

While all eyes are on China, we must consider the wider dangers on our doorstep. The Center for Strategic & International Studies just released a report that identifies four spheres where digital authoritarianism manifests itself: within autocracies; as tools to undermine adversaries; via export to like-minded regimes; and within and by democracies themselves.” 

The report cautions that adoption within democratic countries is the most worrying. Only democracies can stop digital authoritarianism, but they are also letting it flood their societies: “Political parties, interest groups, and even corporations within democratic countries have steadily adopted the approaches developed by authoritarian regimes, particularly over the last five years.”

Democratic countries are not doing their due diligence to regulate digital technologies. There is a troubling lack of consensus between governments and private entities on how to tackle these challenges and whether there should be export restrictions.

“Like it or not, Canada has a role to play in mobilizing our allies to work together to face the challenge digital authoritarianism poses.”

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Marietje Schaake of Stanford University recently raised the alarm about the dangers of free market trade of digital surveillance and internet blocking technologies. She noted that the American company Sandvine was accused of supplying the Belarusian government with technology it used to prevent its citizens from accessing the Internet during antigovernment protests this summer. After calls from U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, Sandvine ultimately canceled their contract with Belarus. Senator Durbin said, “It would be deeply troubling if American technology is being used by the last dictator of Europe to block Belarussians from the Internet just as thousands peacefully protest a stolen election and brutal police killings.”

Canada is also struggling with this problem. In October, the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto released  a report showing that Netsweeper, a Canadian company that sells Internet categorization and filtering products, was exporting such technologies to repressive governments. Netsweeper’s “technology was used to block access to political content sites, including websites linked to political groups, opposition groups, local and foreign news, and regional human rights issues in Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen, and UAE,” the report said. It called for domestic changes, such as reforming export laws.

Like it or not, Canada has a role to play in mobilizing our allies to work together to face the challenge digital authoritarianism poses. Fortunately, Canada is starting to play a leadership role.

In November, Global Affairs Canada supported the Joint Statement on Artificial Intelligence and Human Rights issued by the Freedom Online Coalition, a group of more than 30 governments committed to Internet freedom. The statement offers several policy recommendations that states must follow in order to ensure that artificial intelligence technologies are not used for authoritarian and repressive purposes — including that countries work toward developing international norms and standards governing the use of artificial intelligence.  

This sort of cooperation will be necessary in the years ahead. It is imperative that innovations in digital technology are used in accordance with human rights laws and that Canada continues to work with other democratic states to limit the spread and severity of digital authoritarianism.