Illiberal and Authoritarian Practices in the Digital Sphere
Concern about how digital communication technologies contribute to a decline of democracy and the rise of authoritarian tendencies abounds in academic and public debate. In this conceptual contribution—which connects insights from new media studies, critical security studies, human rights law, and authoritarianism research—we argue that the threats citizens may be exposed to in a digitally networked world can be grouped into three categories: (1) arbitrary surveillance, (2) secrecy and disinformation, and (3) violation of freedom of expression. We introduce the twin concepts of digital illiberal and authoritarian practices to better identify and disaggregate how such threats can be produced and diffused in transnational and multi-actor configurations. Illiberal practices, we argue, infringe on the autonomy and dignity of the person, and they are a human rights problem. Authoritarian practices sabotage accountability and thereby threaten democratic processes. We use the example of the U.S. National Security Agency’s massive secret data-gathering program to illustrate both what constitutes a practice and the distinctions as well as the connections between illiberal and authoritarian practices in the digital sphere.
Glasius, M. and Michaelsen, M. (2018). ‘Illiberal and Authoritarian Practices in the Digital Sphere’ in Michaelsen, M. and M. Glasius, eds. Special Section of International Journal of Communication 12, 3795–3813.
The International Politics of Authoritarian Internet Control in Iran
This paper investigates the influence of international politics on practices of internet surveillance and censorship in authoritarian contexts. Using the case of Iran, it analyzes how the geopolitical and ideological opposition to the West, particularly the United States, pushed the Iranian state to perceive the internet as a strategic battleground for regime stability. External threats in the form of cyber-attacks, democracy promotion and sanctions have created conditions that enabled the Iranian state to develop and to justify capabilities for censorship and surveillance. Authoritarian practices and power are thus produced in international struggles over the use, content, and infrastructure of digital technologies.
Michaelsen, M. (2018). ‘Transforming Threats to Power: The International Politics of Authoritarian Internet Control in Iran’, in Michaelsen, M. and M. Glasius, eds. Special Section of International Journal of Communication 12, 3795–3813.
Asymmetrical Power Between Internet Giants and Users in China
The asymmetry of power between the Internet giants and the users, prevalent in the digital era, is deeply problematic in China. The two key players of big data—the Internet giants and the government—are interested in exploiting the potential of big data, but the regulation of the use and application of user data is an obstacle to their goal. The Internet giants do not value the provision of transparent privacy policies and the enforcement of the policies, while the government, being an investor in and consumer of big data services, is neither interested in nor technologically capable of regulating big data technology. Moreover, there is no unified Internet governance system to solicit cooperation within the government to regulate Internet privacy. These contextual characteristics facilitate the building of a social credit system that pays limited attention to user privacy. The findings suggest that in the discussion about the political consequences of ICT development in China, we should focus on the Internet giants and their unchecked technological power instead of only on the government.
Lv, A. and T. Luo (2018). ‘Asymmetrical Power Between Internet Giants and Users in China’ in Michaelsen, M. and M. Glasius, eds. Special Section of International Journal of Communication 12, 3795–3813.
From the Web to the Streets: internet and protests under authoritarian regimes
This article systematically investigates the relationship between internet use and protests in authoritarian states and democracies. It argues that unlike in democracies, internet use has facilitated the occurrence of protests in authoritarian regimes, developing a theoretical rationale for this claim and substantiating it with robust empirical evidence. The article argues that whereas information could already flow relatively freely in democracies, the use of the internet has increased access to information in authoritarian regimes despite authoritarian attempts to control cyberspace. The general claim that internet use has facilitated the occurrence of protests under authoritarian rule is systematically tested in a global quantitative study using country-year data from 1990 to 2013. Internet use increases the expected number of protests in authoritarian states.
Ruijgrok, K. (2017). ‘From the Web to the Streets: internet and protests under authoritarian regimes’, Democratization 24(3), 498-520.
Far Away, So Close: Transnational Activism, Digital Surveillance and Authoritarian Control in Iran
Drawing on research into repressive strategies of the Iranian state against exiled human rights activists and journalists, I show how digital surveillance allows the regime to monitor political activity outside the country and to prepare counter-measures projecting power beyond borders. With the help of digital media, state authorities can expand the scope and scale of potential threats against activists in the diaspora and their ties into the country. I argue that the repressive practices of the Iranian state are not only a response to the transnationalization of political activism but also result of a global securitization of online space. The Iranian case thus demonstrates how contemporary authoritarian power is built and sustained in processes no longer bound to a specific state or territory.
Michaelsen, M. (2017). ‘Far Away, So Close: Transnational Activism, Digital Surveillance and Authoritarian Control in Iran‘. Surveillance & Society 15(3/4), 465-470.