Democratic governments have their work cut out: How to make clear the difference between their decisions to bar online disinformation and those of authoritarian regimes designed to silence critics?

YouTube this week announced it was removing videos spreading misinformation about approved covid-19 vaccinations; the social media platform has also banned anti-vaccine activists.

In Russia, meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin’s regime forced Google and Apple to remove jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s tactical voting app from their stores.

By forcing Western technology companies to do things that are antithetical to their values and mission, “it’s almost like the whole vision of the open internet has been turned on its head in these authoritarian contexts,” Eileen Donahoe, executive director of the Global Digital Policy Incubator at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center.

“To Putin, the Navalny app is the disinformation,” Donahoe told the annual CEPA Forum. “And so it goes to the question: How do we articulate the difference in a geopolitical arena?”

The answer, Donahoe said, lies in the fact that “it is as simple as the difference between authoritarianism and democracy. That’s it . . . At some point there is a choice to be made.”

Congressman Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) sees a conundrum. Describing YouTube’s actions as a “brilliant” move, the congressman: “However, I recognize that there are people that are anti-vax [that] see that and then see in essence whatever the technology platform is succumbing to what China wants, or to what Russia wants, and it creates a ton of [unease] in the United States.”

CEPA President and CEO Alina Polyakova said: “When we see the Kremlin or Beijing making specific rules, it is not in the interest of free speech.”

Kinzinger and Donahoe were participants in a panel discussion on the third and final day of the 2021 Forum. They were joined in the discussion by Dita Charanzová, vice president of the European Parliament, and Karan Bhatia, vice president, government affairs andpublic policy at Google. Polyakova moderated the discussion.

Discussing the challenge posed by the “digital authoritarian model” to democracies, Donahoe said: “This is not really a battle over the internet or technology companies, this is a battle over the future of democracy and whether democratic governance will be the primary and the dominant form of government around the world.”

Companies face the dilemma of deciding at what point to pull out of an authoritarian country and provide no services, said Donahoe. “There is a lot of criticism from the human rights community about [tech companies] having pulled down the apps [in Russia], but there is a point at which they are forced out of the country completely, and that’s not a good picture either,” she added.

Acknowledging that these are “really hard issues” for global tech companies, Bhatia said: “They are particularly challenging when you are operating with the mission that [Google has],” he said. “There are no perfect answers . . . and you are often balancing multiple pressures…. But at the end of the day the question that we often ask ourselves is, ‘Is the world better off with the kind of objective access to information that a Google brings in a country than not?’”

Bhatia believes it is. “I think the world is a better place with more access to more information the way we are able to bring it. Would we like to be able to do it perfectly in every circumstance? Yes.”

In 2020, 29 countries, including democracies like India, blocked access to the internet.

Making information available to everyone is a challenge, Bhatia conceded. He said it is, therefore, important that the United States and the EU continue to stand up for internet freedom and human rights in the internet space.

Earlier in September, the United States and the European Union (EU) held the inaugural meeting of the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council (TTC).

Bhatia said of the TTC: “These are two governments sitting down for the first time in recent memory to have a serious, wide-ranging discussion on technology. That’s a good thing. That’s an unmitigated good thing, and it is going to yield progress.”

To counter the challenge posed by dual-use capabilities of technologies, Polyakova cited the need for greater transatlantic cooperation. She also said governments and the private sector to join this battle. “It is really all hands on deck,” she said.

Kinzinger said the U.S. government and private sector should be activated to work with allies in Central and Eastern Europe to harden their defenses. “We are all fighting really the same battle,” he explained.

“An attack on the U.S. elections in 2016 is an attack on an election somewhere else in 2017, and this is going to continue until we stand up and fight back,” he said. “The bottom line is governments have to do better at coordinating . . . We also have to do better at educating each individual user in terms of the danger.”

Many Central and Eastern Europe states have long faced cyber and disinformation attacks and challenges emanating from Russia. “If we in the United States had spent a little bit of time trying to really see the bigger picture and understand what our allies have been going through,” Polyakova said, “we may have been better prepared to respond now.”

Describing the challenge as “a technology and norms battle at home and a norms battle in the international arena,” Donahoe said the United States and Europe need to understand that they are on the same side in this battle and band together.

Charanzová, too, emphasized the need for both sides of the Atlantic to jointly take on this threat. “We have common challenges and for common challenges we need to have common responses,” she said.

Acknowledging that the EU’s use of terms like “digital sovereignty” and “strategic autonomy” imply that Europe is inclined to handle these challenges alone, not unlike the premise of “America First,” Charanzová instead underscored the need for cooperation with the U.S.

Polyakova said the free world is in a “battle over values” and that many tech companies find themselves on the frontlines of this battle as they attempt to function in autocratic countries. “The entire democratic vision of an open and interoperable internet is under threat, and many would say it has already disappeared,” she said.

Democracies around the world need to understand this is a battle about “system rivalry,” said Donahoe. “We are in a geopolitical and normative battle over the future of governance in the 21st-century digital society,” she said. “You can’t be a system with nothing, you need a compelling alternative, and I do not think democracies have provided that compelling alternative.”

In order to address this deficit, Donahoe suggested governments showcase what it looks like for governments “to use and regulate data in ways that are consistent with their own democratic values.”

All of this will require massive investment in technology, which Donahoe described as a vehicle for spreading and embedding democratic values.

“Dominance in technology . . . will translate into more power in every other arena,” she said. “So we have to win the technology battle.”