By Doug Kelly, CEO, American Edge Project

Authoritarian governments have long cited their so-called efficiency and ability to mobilize resources as reasons their system of government is superior. But recent massive public protests in China, Iran, and Russia are providing a sharp contrast between autocratic and democratic forms of government, as well as reemphasizing the importance of American and Western leadership across the globe, especially when it comes to technology and the internet.

In China, thousands of people in at least fifteen cities across the country are rising up in anti-government protests, the largest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Protestors are demanding to be freed not only from rigid COVID-19-related lockdowns, but also from the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) increasing control over all aspects of daily life. Many demonstrators are holding up blank sheets of white paper – a symbolic protest against censorship – and some are even demanding the ouster of President Xi Jinping. 

Ironically, though China’s soccer team didn’t qualify for the World Cup, the images that ordinary Chinese citizens are seeing from the soccer matches – large, maskless crowds, joyfully cheering on their teams – have exposed the CCP’s big lie about why heavy control, surveillance, and lockdowns were needed. 

In Iran, protests erupted in dozens of cities following the September death of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, while in police custody. Social media platforms were a key factor in mobilizing protestors and the truth. Within a day of her death, a quarter-million Instagram users joined Iranians posting about Amini, and the hashtag bearing her name had nine million engagements (likes, tweets, etc.). When the Iranian government blocked access to social media services, demand in Iran for VPN services skyrocketed 2,164 percent from the prior 28 days, as tens of thousands of Iranians sought to bypass government censorship and connect to American social media platforms. 

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, thousands of Russians participated in angry street protests. U.S. tech companies worked feverishly to knock down Russian propaganda, create software patches against cyberattacks, and provide real-time updates of the actual on-the-ground horrors in Ukraine, until the Russian government banned most American tech company services. Meanwhile, China and its technology companies continue to parrot Russian propaganda about the war and large-scale demonstrations have shifted to daily stealth resistance activities against “Putin’s war.”

The global impact and importance of U.S. technological leadership cannot be understated. Technology isn’t just another sector: it’s the very backbone of our national security, our economic prosperity, and the advancement of core Western values – speech, assembly, expression, freedom, and more – both at home and abroad. 

As the head of Top10VPN told CNBC, “Social media plays a crucial role in protests all around the world. It allows protesters to organize and ensure the authorities can’t control the narrative and suppress evidence of human rights abuses.” 

But the United States and China are in a fierce competition for global technology leadership. The battlefield is wide and includes global standards setting, microchip design and production, artificial intelligence (AI), social networking, quantum computing, 5/6G connectivity, extended reality, and much more. Whichever country masters these technologies first will have a decades long geopolitical and economic advantage. 

Unfortunately, some lawmakers in both the United States and the European Union are targeting the U.S. technology industry with tough new regulations that will undermine our ability to innovate. Many of these bills are specifically designed to apply to only the most innovative tech companies and many would not apply to Chinese tech companies. This would play directly into China’s strategy of making the United States and the West increasingly dependent on Chinese technology. 

Yet these anti-innovation efforts are out-of-step with the public. A recent poll found that large majorities of U.S. and EU voters agreed that the growing technological influence of China and Russia is a threat to their country’s national security (76% U.S., 72% EU) and their economy (76% U.S., 70% EU). What’s more, over 80 percent of U.S. and EU voters called for greater Western cooperation to balance China and Russia’s growing technological influence, up significantly from the previous year. 

It matters greatly which country – and which set of values – builds the future. Will it be autocratic countries who drive our tech future, one centered around increasing surveillance, censorship, and government dictates? Or will it be democratic countries who take the tech lead, a future centered around openness, accessibility, and private-sector innovation? The world is depending on Western policymakers to get it right.