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The global rise of digital authoritarianism


Technology is increasingly being blamed for a rise in digital authoritarianism, where almost every aspect of our lives is impacted by surveillance, censorship, and in some cases, social credit systems.

Emerging technologies are evolving faster than authorities can implement new legislation. As a result, big tech companies have arguably become more powerful than governments. The usual suspect's Amazon, Apple, Google (Alphabet), Facebook, and Microsoft have been allowed to govern our lives through algorithms and navigate privacy laws without much regulation.

Governments around the world are beginning to fight back and remind the internet billionaires who’s the boss by attempting to bring big tech firms to heel. President Xi Jinping led the way with a crackdown that placed Chinese tech companies under regulatory scrutiny. The Chinese government has also clamped down on the influence of online celebrities and has limited under-18s to 3 hours of online gaming a week. But with other nations attempting to implement their own crackdowns, recent events should act as a wake-up call for tech companies.

In India, a new digital law promised to make social media companies, streaming services, and all tech services to be accountable for the content shared by users on its platforms. But a state removing content it disapproves of or eradicating users' privacy on social media and encrypted messaging apps could be the beginning of a worrying trend where governments form a blueprint for a digital dictatorship.

The encroachment on freedom during the pandemic allowed the Indonesian government to introduce initiatives to control the narrative and flow of information online. There are also similar stories across the entire continent of Africa about internet shutdowns, surveillance, social media taxes, and even arrests for posts that are deemed to be against the government.

The rise of digital authoritarianism

Technology is increasingly being blamed for a rise in digital authoritarianism, where almost every aspect of our lives is impacted by surveillance, censorship, and in some cases, social credit systems. It is widely accepted that virtually every website will track every click, swipe, and any form of online engagement in the name of personalization. But we are now beginning to see a global drive from states to control big tech, a move where the biggest casualties could be the rights of internet users.

Despite facial recognition bans in some states of the U.S., we are still seeing increased workplace surveillance and concerns around a future of predictive policing and pre-crime algorithms.

Digital authoritarianism can come in many shapes and sizes, but it's most apparent when leveraging technology to identify, monitor, and censor individuals online.

Some nations also use technology to expand political authority by controlling and shaping the behavior of their citizens. CCTV, facial recognition, and GPS tracking have entered the mainstream and normalized a digital world of constant surveillance by trading privacy for convenience.

The arrival of a global pandemic helped some authorities secure a land grab to censor all dissenting speech and encourage users to self-censor their views online. Citizens were warned to comply and report rulebreakers through digital apps and special hotlines. In the case of COVID 19, the use of digital tools to ensure compliance could save lives. But the bigger concern is if these same techniques would remain in a post-pandemic world.

Will the exploitation of personal data generated by online activity eventually enable algorithms to control society and social interactions aligned with the values of a government or regime? Avoiding these potential problems will require a new blueprint to protect the world's citizens, and every nation has a part to play.

Thinking bigger than a digital cold war

It's often tempting in the west to point the fingers of blame at China. However, in doing so, we run the risk of oversimplifying a very complex global problem. For example, many will also point to Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, often accused of using authoritarian digital tactics and tools. But revelations from Ed Snowden combined with reports that the FBI can monitor citizens browsing history without a warrant suggests that digital authoritarianism is present in every corner of the world.

If you were to embark on a journey from the U.K. across Europe and into Israel, you would find many tech companies selling public security surveillance tools. So rather than pointing the finger of blame at a region different from our own, we need to recognize the need for a global regulatory framework for every company exporting these technologies.

With global internet freedoms on a rapid decline, there needs to be a better method of managing our digital lives.

The race is on to control big tech, and this begins by tackling social media manipulation and the misuse of our data online. But in a way that keeps the internet free, secure, and without sacrificing our human rights.

Digital authoritarianism is on the rise around the world, and no country can afford to take the moral high ground. The only way to avoid sleepwalking into an inescapable reality is to recognize the scale of the problem and the impacts that big tech has had on our world by moving fast and breaking stuff.

On one side of the coin, we can expect to see some governments creating new policies that encourage competition and reduce tech companies' power to protect democracy. But on the flip side, there will be authoritarian states that will develop new policies to reinforce their authority.

However, as an eternal optimist, I am hopeful that people will soon wake up from their polarized echo chambers. Maybe, we can then collectively find hope in the words of Patti Smith when she sings, "People have the power to dream, to rule and to wrestle the world from fools.

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