On the heels of National Free Speech week, recent events in Russia should serve as a cautionary tale of the risks associated with ceding America’s technological edge to countries that do not share our values.
As Congress continues to consider legislative proposals that could handcuff America’s most innovative tech companies, it risks opening the door for “techno-autocracies,” such as Russia and China, to dominate the global internet.
America’s tech innovators underpin an internet that is open, accessible, and welcoming of free expression. Our values stand in stark contrast to those of “techno-autocracies” who use the internet to monitor their citizens, suppress information, and surveil and persecute political opponents.
For example, earlier this year, thousands of Twitter users in Russia experienced a “slowdown on the platform” as a direct result of Twitter not complying with a demand from Russian authorities to take down content the government deemed “illegal.” According to The New York Times, “human rights groups viewed this as an effort to stifle dissent” by controlling what users can and cannot post and view online in relation to the Russian government.
However, March’s Twitter shutdown was only a small part of a much larger plan by Russia to censor the internet. This censorship effort began back in 2019 when it was reported that Russia sent a series of emails and forms to gather basic information from internet providers and telecommunication companies. This evolved into Russian officials installing “government-approved” equipment within their computer systems and servers. Ultimately, it was found that this equipment allowed Russian officials to “block, filter and slow down websites that they did not want the Russian public to see.”
Social media platforms in “techno-autocracies” have played tremendous roles in exposing wrong-doing and anti-democratic activity in Russia and other countries around the world. Free speech, unfettered access to information, and clashes of differing ideas in the public have helped create American exceptionalism – something other global citizens are starving for and deserve.
Americans understand this and want our country to keep leading in this area. A recent poll conducted by Ipsos in partnership with the American Edge Project found that “voters believe authoritarian versions of the internet run counter to American values, and believe the U.S. can – and should – lead an open and free internet.” Nearly nine-in-10 (88%) agree that “the ability to speak freely on the internet is one of the freedoms that separates the U.S. from authoritarian countries like China, Russia, and Iran.” As a result, a plurality (37%) of voters believe the U.S. should lead the way in setting rules and standards for the internet.
Further, a subsequent poll showed that “voters in both the U.S. and throughout the EU share a common set of democratic values and believe the internet should be an open and accessible platform that is conducive to freedom of expression and speech.” These voters agree “we must protect an open, accessible, and free internet in the U.S./EU” (86% in U.S., 84% in Europe). Accordingly, voters are also wary of the growing threat from our foreign adversaries and are calling on U.S. and EU officials to work together and invest in their respective tech sectors.
Through collaboration with like-minded allies and support for our domestic tech innovators, we can protect and promote democratic principles online. As “techno-autocracies” seek to undermine our core values, Congress must be cautious of legislation that could pave the way for “techno-autocracies” to rewrite the rules of the internet.