Editor’s note: This column is from one of the writers who will participate in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, which runs from Tuesday night through Friday. For details about the conference, go to stpetersburgconferenceonworldaffairs.com.
When Iranian forces brutally cracked down on citizen protests last November, for good measure they made sure to effectively shut down the internet. More recently, we learned that in December, Chinese authorities had wasted no time in chastising Dr. Li Wenliang, who had tried to warn China about the emerging coronavirus epidemic — and later died from complications of that very coronavirus. Dr. Li’s crime? He had taken his warning to social media and the internet — which authorities scrubbed with impunity, as if trying to remove any trace of the virus.
Time and time again, authoritarians read from the same script: closing off access to information and stopping its flow regardless of the consequences. When problems arise, the tough don’t get going -- they just turn out the lights - hoping that going dark will make their problems go away.
And what do tyrants see as the problem? It’s not that people take to the streets in valid protests nor a doctor who risks his freedom to raise an alarm that could save lives. No, the problem for tyrants is their worry about being held accountable by a citizenry kept in the dark, so they resort to whatever means at their disposal to reclaim the information space. The free and open internet enables people all over the world to share and discuss everything from family updates to life-saving information during crises. Or it would, if it wasn’t under constant attack by governments seeking to control or punish citizens for their online speech.
Today, enemies of a free internet invest more than ever in censorship and surveillance technology. The Chinese Communist Party alone spends billions of dollars annually to expand its complex control apparatus, while Russia and Iran are making huge investments to build their own “national intranets”; splintering and segmenting the internet increasing the vast inequality of power between the government and their citizens -- and beyond their borders. To date, China and Russia have provided state-of-the-art technology to more than 108 countries, including advanced surveillance technologies and training on “online information management.” Online censorship and surveillance have become global problems.
What can we do?
For the last century, the United States has stood in opposition to totalitarian efforts to control information because all people have the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, and these rights are both universal and fundamental to freedom. For 16 years, I led Radio Free Asia -- a U.S.-funded broadcaster set up to provide uncensored, local journalism to people living in closed societies with no free press. RFA and its hundreds of journalists risk their lives and the lives of their families to painstakingly extract and report news from inside the world’s most closed environments including North Korea, Tibet, Xinjiang and Laos. Far too many of my colleagues were persecuted, jailed and exiled; unconscionably many of their family members have been “disappeared” without a shred of due process in intimidation campaigns to silence their voices.
The internet, on which billions of people worldwide rely to access accurate news and information and communicate with one another, is the latest battlefield where totalitarians wage war against freedom. It is critical that we work to ensure the internet remains accessible and free from repressive censorship and surveillance. Internet freedom must be a strategic priority if RFA and others are to serve -- and protect -- our audiences, our journalists and our sources in the digital age.
Fighting this threat requires a focused and fresh approach -- one that is user-focused and powered by a multidisciplinary mission-driven community. In 2012, the Open Technology Fund (OTF) was created as a program at Radio Free Asia. Over the past seven years, OTF has pioneered support for applied research, development, and implementation of cutting-edge internet freedom technologies to respond to rapidly evolving censorship threats around the world. OTF helps build technologies that empower citizens to push back against repressive censorship and surveillance. Today, over 2 billion people globally use OTF-supported technology daily, and more than two-thirds of all mobile users have OTF-incubated technology on their device.
This year, having proven we can successfully fight back, OTF has emerged as a new independent corporation to enable the US Agency for Global Media -- the agency that oversees RFA, Voice of America and RFERL, Alhurra and Radio/TV Marti -- to expand its internet freedom work and maximize its impact. With USAGM media networks’ audiences increasingly relying on the internet for news and information, they need the tools to access objective news safe from censorship and surveillance, as do our journalists, stringers and sources, who are constantly exposed to threat.
Tyrants and their enablers have made it clear that they will do and spend whatever it takes to distort the internet in their own image of control, power, profit and repression. The United States and its allies must act together to protect the internet as a democratic space for free expression and human dignity. The new Open Technology Fund is just one way to defend the world-wide web and empower people everywhere to join the fight.
Libby Liu is CEO of the Open Technology Fund.