The Battle for Internet Freedom: Surveillance, Censorship, and Online Manipulation

13 May 2024

You can jump to any part of the United States International Cyberspace & Digital Policy Strategy here. This part is 6 of 38.

Threats to the Internet and Digital Freedom

Authoritarian and illiberal states are seeking to restrict human rights online and offline through the misuse of the Internet and digital technologies. Governments are closing and siloing the Internet: suppressing dissent through Internet and telecommunications shutdowns, virtual blackouts, restricted networks, and blocked websites.

The PRC has developed a massive system of surveillance, and its firms are now exporting their regulatory approach and technical capabilities to facilitate other governments’ monitoring and repression. Beijing has also used cyber means to target people beyond its borders, including journalists, dissidents, and individuals it views as threats to Chinese Communist Party narratives, policies, and actions. In the wake of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Russian government blocked access to foreign websites and increased censorship and surveillance of domestic users. The Iranian government continues to rely on Internet restrictions, filtering, and surveillance to repress opposition to the regime.

A growing number of governments, including backsliding democracies, are misusing digital tools in ways that violate or abuse the individual’s right to be free from arbitrary or unlawful interference with one’s privacy, and restricting and threatening individuals’ rights to freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Commercial spyware, AI-enabled facial recognition software, and other surveillance technologies are misused against journalists, human rights defenders and other activists, women, and members of marginalized groups, including beyond countries’ borders. Technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV) chills speech, impedes privacy and freedom of expression, and undermines the ability of women, girls, and LGBTQI+ individuals to participate in democracy, governance, and civic life.

The proliferation of online manipulation, in combination with threats posed by foreign adversaries seeking to interfere with information integrity, pose fundamental threats to democracy, undermining trust in institutions, threatening electoral processes, and sowing discord within and between countries. PRC actors have increased their capabilities to conduct covert influence operations and disseminate disinformation. Even if Beijing sets limits on these activities, individuals not under its direct supervision may attempt election influence activities they perceive are in line with the PRC’s goals. The Russian government remains a serious foreign influence threat because of its wide-ranging efforts to try to divide Western alliances and undermine U.S. global standing. Recently, Russian influence actors have adapted their efforts to better hide their hand.

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This post was originally published on May 6, 2024, by the U.S Department of State