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The Future of the Digital Order

Communications technologies will shape the future of the global digital order

  • Center for a New American Security | 26/11/2021

Center for a New American Security


Nations that successfully harness the vast economic, political, and societal power of emerging information and communications technologies will shape the future of the global digital order. This future is not set in stone. A digital order defined by liberal democratic values requires U.S. leadership and the cooperation of trusted like-minded partners. In the absence of democratic leadership, autocratic rivals of the United States can fill that void—exploiting the control of information, surveillance technologies, and standards for technology governance to promote a digital ecosystem that entrenches and expands their authoritarian practices.

In exploring how a closed, illiberal order is taking root in strategic regions around the world, this report offers recommendations for how to craft, promote, and preserve a more open and democratic alternative. An assessment of crosscutting trends between China, Russia, and the Middle East across three pillars—information control, surveillance, and technology governance—leads us to the following conclusions:

  • China is the prime mover in shaping the evolving digital order in its favor. Beijing’s use of technologies such as facial recognition software and telecommunications networks allows the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to expand control over its citizens. The CCP’s ability to promote and export this model of digital repression, in turn, gives like-minded, nondemocratic governments a roadmap for how to deploy digital technologies for control and abuse in their own countries.
  • Russia’s model of digital authoritarianism, while technologically less sophisticated than China’s, could prove to be more readily adaptable and enduring for current and aspiring autocrats. Regional powers such as Belarus, Azerbaijan, and some Central Asian states have already incorporated elements of this model.
  • In the Middle East, authoritarian leaders use digital tools to control internal populations by sabotaging and spying on citizens, and this contributes to the construction of an illiberal digital order that is beneficial to America’s peer competitors—China and Russia.

These conclusions reveal four key trends with implications for the future of the digital order:

  • Growing China-Russia alignment will generate dangerous digital synergies, such as (1) making digital autocracy accessible for a broader swath of states; (2) accelerating China’s and Russia’s digital innovation; (3) eroding liberal norms in international institutions; and (4) raising the prospects of a “splinternet,” a fragmenting of the internet along nationalistic, political, technological, religious, or ethnic lines.
  • Countries around the world, particularly autocratic regimes and those flirting with illiberalism, will seek to regulate online communications platforms through (1) social media; (2) data localization laws; and (3) instigating company self-censorship, which restricts free speech and increases online control.
  • Illiberal regimes will seek out Chinese technology to help them control social movements and civil protests. U.S. nondemocratic partners, adversaries, and even some democratic partners justify their pursuit of Chinese technology by underscoring ways the adopted technologies will contribute to economic growth, social stability, and efforts to fight crime and terrorism.
  • The practices of illiberal regimes will reduce the efficacy of U.S. mitigation practices. Russia and China’s efforts to promote an illiberal digital order complement one another and could accelerate innovation between the two nations.

The United States must craft a policy response that considers these emerging patterns and incorporates more than its usual partners in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. Shoring up the existing coalition of democratic actors to counter these illiberal trends will likely not be sufficient. This report offers recommendations that the United States can implement on three fronts: at home, while engaging with traditional U.S. democratic as well as nondemocratic partners, and when countering U.S. adversaries such as China, Russia, and Iran. The United States must take a leadership role, recognizing that the future digital order is at stake.

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