Unfreedom Monitor Hand 4:3

The Unfreedom Monitor is a project to analyze, document, and report on the growing use of digital communications technology to advance authoritarian governance around the world.

Authoritarian and dictatorial regimes have long had a complicated relationship with media and communications technologies, using them to advance their own goals and propaganda. At the same time, they restrict access for some to technology and information, helping them to shape and warp reality, conceal abuses, and maintain power. As more and more people use the internet and other technologies these dynamics only become stronger. This means that, despite its goals for good, the internet is sometimes used by authoritarian-minded governments as a tool for deception, propaganda and control.

In 2010, Global Voices’ co-founder Rebecca MacKinnon coined the term “networked authoritarianism” to define how China manipulates the internet to maintain power. The approach allows for limited debate around some issues but controls the platforms and frames the narratives up for discussion. Technology facilitates surveillance and social controls, and information, discussion, and activism with the potential to threaten power is forbidden.

Global Voices has been tracking and documenting this phenomenon in many countries through our Advox project, since 2007. We have noticed a few trends. Over time, threats to online expression transform from threats to individuals to threats to systems, affecting entire populations. Internet controls and mass surveillance become an accepted part of governing. States have become sophisticated in their ability to detect, repress and target organizing, expression and activism. Many states are combining targeted denial of information services with powerful surveillance and the ability to “flood the zone” with false and misleading information, using automated technologies and networks of supporters. These practices and more come together to strengthen existing authoritarian powers and threaten the stability of long-standing and fledgling democracies.


Image Courtesy Ivan Sigal

Today, what has become known as digital authoritarianism is evident in all kinds of governments. The internet is dominated by advertising technology that tracks and segments users for commercial gain. Governments, states, and political parties, often in collaboration with corporations, harness this surveillance power, and a future with more advanced machine learning, facial recognition, and artificial intelligence for “predictive” analysis suggests that state capabilities for control will likely increase. Combine this with the ubiquitous CCTV capture, the face that we carry our communications devices everywhere, and the normalization of the idea that your devices should listen to you, and you end up with pervasive surveillance.

These are the reasons we created The Unfreedom Monitor. We want to understand what motivates, shapes, and influences digital authoritarianism around the world, no matter the style of government or political system. Starting with 11 pilot countries, we are seeking to develop a method for naming digital authoritarianism, so we can help people of good conscience tame it.

The Unfreedom Monitor

Authoritarian regimes have long had a complicated relationship with media and communications technologies. The Unfreedom Monitor is a Global Voices Advox research initiative examining the growing phenomenon of networked or digital authoritarianism.

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