By Senator Heidi Heitkamp and Congressman Greg Walden
The harrowing detainment of Belarusian dissident Raman Pratasevich – an opposition journalist who “ran a channel on a messaging app used to organize demonstrations against the iron-fisted rule of President Alexander Lukashenko” – has once again reminded us of the precariousness of free expression online, especially in parts of the world where leaders cruelly punish those who dare criticize them.
Actions taken by the Belarusian government to arrest Pratasevich must amount to more than just another cautionary tale – they must serve as a clarion call for the promotion of policies that protect a vision of the internet that embodies our values of openness, accessibility, and free expression.
For context, back in May, Lukashenko, Belarus’ de-facto dictator, used a fighter jet to force Ryanair Flight 4978, a commercial airliner traveling through the country’s airspace, to reroute and land in Minsk, Belarus. Once on the ground, Pratasevich and his traveling companion were arrested and reportedly transferred over to a KGB detention facility.
Not only was this an appalling use of military force to ground a commercial flight, the incident further underscores the lengths to which Lukashenko is prepared to go to suppress dissent online – particularly following the egregious internet blackouts that coincided with protests and social unrest over the country’s disputed presidential election last summer.
The ramifications of Ryanair Flight 4978, however, go well beyond the borders of Belarus. Lukashenko’s latest effort to silence his critics is emblematic of the broader battle between “techno-autocracies” like China, Iran, and Russia — which recently threatened to decelerate Google’s traffic for failing to delete content Moscow deems illegal — and techno-democracies like the United States, European Union, and Japan to shape the internet’s future.
The already-wide gulf between those two groups of countries in the realm of internet freedom, meanwhile, has only grown wider over the past year after more than a dozen government-imposed internet shutdowns. Overall, of the 65 countries surveyed in the annual Freedom on the Net study, 45 countries arrested or criminally charged citizens for adverse COVID-related speech.
Given the gravity of what’s at stake if the United States allows foreign governments with fundamentally different values to usurp our global technology leadership, Americans across the ideological spectrum are rightfully concerned about whether the internet of the future will reflect or restrict the values we hold dear. Per a spring Ipsos poll conducted on behalf of the American Edge Project, there is broad agreement among independents (81 percent), Republicans (79 percent), and Democrats (60 percent) regarding the need keep the internet open.
Americans also recognize that an open and accessible internet is important to freedom of expression (96 percent), government accountability (94 percent), and America’s role in the world (93 percent). Moreover, nearly nine-in-10 voters polled agree that the ability to speak freely on the internet is one of the values that separates the United States from the foregoing authoritarian countries. And consequently, a solid plurality of American voters believe the United States should lead the way when it comes to setting global internet standards.
We firmly agree – and urge the Biden administration to protect an open internet with the urgency this pressing issue demands.
As the competition with techno-autocracies escalates, America’s values have never been more vital – or, as Lukashenko’s alarming actions remind us, more vulnerable–online. We must support America’s domestic tech innovators instead of stifling them as they fight on the frontlines to ensure that the pernicious, techno-autocratic culture responsible for Pratasevich’s apprehension will never become the new norm.
Our country’s tech edge can help prevent strongmen the world over – those who wish to extinguish debate and exploit the internet for nefarious purposes – from weakening America’s values on the web. Let’s work together to strengthen it.