Digital authoritarianism — the use of digital information technology by authoritarian regimes to surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations — is reshaping the power balance between democracies and autocracies. At the forefront of this phenomenon, China and Russia have developed and exported distinct technology-driven playbooks for authoritarian rule. Beijing’s experience using digital tools for domestic censorship and surveillance has made it the supplier of choice for illiberal regimes looking to deploy their own surveillance systems, while Moscow’s lower-cost digital disinformation tools have proven effective in repressing potential opposition at home and undermining democracies abroad.
This policy brief examines the development and export of both the Chinese and Russian models. China pioneered digital age censorship with its “Great Firewall” of a state-controlled Internet and unprecedented high-tech repression deployed in Xinjiang in recent years, and has exported surveillance and monitoring systems to at least 18 countries. Russia relies less on filtering information and more on a repressive legal regime and intimidation of key companies and civil society, a lower-cost ad hoc model more easily transferable to most countries. The Russian government has made recent legal and technical moves which further tighten control, including legislation passed this year to establish a “sovereign Russian internet.”
The authors recommend that the United States and other democracies should tighten export controls on technologies that advance digital authoritarianism, sanction regimes engaging in digital authoritarianism and firms that supply them, develop a competitive democratic model of digital governance with a code of conduct, and increase public awareness around information manipulation, including funding educational programs to build digital critical thinking skills among youth.