Feature

The War-Torn Web

The
War-Torn Web

A once-unified online world has broken into new warring states.

By SEAN MCDONALD and AN XIAO MINA
ILLUSTRATIONS BY DOUG CHAYKA AND JASON LI FOR FOREIGN POLICY

December 19, 2018

The global internet continues to fragment. Governments, in particular, are using their influence to shape the ways that digital companies, markets, and rights connect us online. This new form of realpolitik, which we call “digitalpolitik,” is an emerging tactical playbook for how governments use their political, regulatory, military, and commercial powers to project influence in global, digital markets.

Last month, at the Internet Governance Forum, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, a multi-stakeholder effort to define internet principles around human rights law, with calls for protections against cybercrimes, intellectual property theft, hate speech, and hacking from nonstate actors. The signatory list includes predictable supporters, including France’s European Union allies, large private companies such as Alphabet and Microsoft, and internet rights advocacy groups such as Access Now. There were also notable abstentions, predominantly from countries that bristle at delegating their sovereignty, like the United States, Russia, and China.  Despite refusing to sign as sovereigns, the prominence of American companies in pushing for international internet agreements amid its governmental absence highlights one of Macron’s key points: “The internet is a space currently managed by a technical community of private players,” noted one source from the Macron government, quoted by Reuters, “But it’s not governed. So now that half of humanity is online, we need to find new ways to organize the internet.”

Not all digitalpolitik, however, is international treaties and calls for governance. Google, for example, recently announced Dragonfly, a search engine tailor-made to enable China’s government to continue censoring content and news and connecting people’s queries with their phone numbers—and therefore their identities. Dragonfly marked a dramatic shift from Google’s first attempt at working in China and very public, principled stance to pull out nearly nine years ago. Pushback from Google’s own employees, deeply uncomfortable about enhancing the digital power of the Chinese state, caused the cancellation of the project. But the Chinese government maintains its stance: If you want to do business in China, even huge tech platforms will do it Beijing’s way. And, with one of the world’s largest digital markets, China built and encouraged a rich ecosystem of local, homegrown tools and apps such as Baidu (search), WeChat (chat and social media), and Taobao (online shopping).

DIGITAL SUPERPOWER

A country looking to reshape the internet in its own image, leveraging every form of power it can from laws to markets.
Click to jump to the full map and country-by-country details.Click to jump to country-by-country details.

Google’s announcement of Dragonfly was a public acquiescence to that policy and an implicit acknowledgement that China is more valuable as a market than a political stance on speech. Some called it a reflection of Google’s new leadership and priorities; it was also a reflection of China’s growing power and influence, with a robust middle class and a phone ecosystem that runs on Android alternatives. Dragonfly was the modern, market-based peace treaty between two of the internet’s largest warring states until a concerted push by Amnesty International and internal revolt led to a rollback of the plan. Its short, doomed life was one indicator of the beginning of the next era of the internet, one where states actively seek to influence global internet governance and norms through a variety of tactics. In the uncertain institutional environment of the global internet, states, civil society groups, and private citizens are also being forced into creative approaches for digital advantage.

What’s becoming clear is the way governments are using their policies, market influence, and security apparatuses to create a competitive advantage in our increasingly digital world.

In many ways, the Paris Call is an extension of the EU’s increasing efforts to influence technology norms. This past May, the EU implemented the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a rigorous regulatory regime aimed at policing all behavior that “targets” European citizens. Almost immediately, Europeans noticed a number of companies actively blocking them, preventing them from accessing a range of services and sites including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. But Europe’s influence extends beyond its borders—the regulations in place have created a sea change of new services designed around data privacy and that affect all users of major platforms, including those who neither live there nor are EU citizens.

And while much attention is paid to a tripartite technology world of the United States, China, and the EU, smaller initiatives abound: At the same time as states are navigating sovereign relationships, nearly every country is also wrestling with domestically defining and balancing state and political power. In the United States, California passed a data protection law this year with no federal support, just one of many state-led efforts to influence a national stance on data and the internet, with a special focus on net neutrality. Some states are focusing on how to manage the balance between the state and its citizens, as with India’s Aadhaar biometric identity system or Uganda’s social media tax, while others focus on corporate influence, such as Papua New Guinea’s temporary restrictions on Facebook or Ireland’s beneficial corporate taxes. Nationalized versions of internet utilities, as in the U.K. and Cuba, are either on the table or coming into effect. Regardless of whether you agree with each individual initiative, what’s becoming clear is the way governments are using their policies, market influence, and security apparatuses to create a competitive advantage in our increasingly digital world.


Like many megatrends, digitalpolitik is already a familiar theme in many headlines, but without the framing or taxonomy to give it context. People in China and Iran are already used to jumping firewalls to access foreign sites and content. The European Union is already trying to punish Ireland for using favorable taxation policies to lure global tech giants. U.S. platform companies have already seen one aspect of its trans-Atlantic digital alliance, the International Safe Harbor Privacy Principles, fall apart, only to be replaced by Privacy Shield, which also seems precariously close to collapse.

Contention on how the internet should be run isn’t new. Some have identified this as a world of parallel internets, or rifts in the vision of how the internet should operate. But the gulfs in governance and action opening up and the active efforts to influence them indicate the world is coming into a new—and worrying—phase of the internet’s development, one we’ve dubbed the Internet’s Warring States Period.

In the fifth century B.C., East Asia entered into the Warring States Period, when dozens of kingdoms, eventually reduced to a few major contenders, vied for power and control over much of the territory that we now know as China. As is the case today, the shift then was driven by radical technological changes as the Bronze Age gave way to iron and the tools of both killing and farming became sharper. Newly booming states competed for population, for talent, and on the battlefield. This balkanized system still required interconnection, through trade and diplomatic alliances, while also opening the door for over 200 years of conflict and contention—and for theories of what the state itself should be, from the radical utilitarianism of Mohism to the cynical authoritarianism of the Legalists.

Chinese thinkers such as Confucius often imagined a glorious age of unity and peace before the Warring States Period. Over the past two years, Silicon Valley’s own utopian vision of an open and global internet through private platforms has failed, amid widespread misinformation, hate speech, and political manipulation. These join a number of long-running threats to global connectivity, including privatization, market manipulation, surveillance, data breaches, and state-sponsored cyberattacks, alongside other risks barely conceived of yet. The terrestrial borders that previously defined how states interact have become interconnected and porous, raising definitional questions about acceptable aggression and response, the necessity of interconnected trade, and how we balance individual and collective rights. In the absence of clear answers, a wide range of actors from governments to multinational corporations interpret the internet’s openness as a vacuum, and they are capitalizing on the opportunity to consolidate power.

DIGITAL INFLUENCER

One among many powers aspiring to push the internet in the direction it wants, and perhaps one day to be a superpower.
Click to jump to the full map and country-by-country details.Click to jump to country-by-country details.

The Internet’s Warring States Period will define what it means to be a digital power in a global context. Each government’s attempt to define the rules either projects its policy globally or fragments what was once the common ground of some aspect of the internet. The earliest and most obvious examples of fragmentation came from website blocking, a common technique to control information among authoritarian states such as China, Russia, and Iran. In the early days, accessing the internet outside these countries’ borders generally required a relatively simple mix of proxies and virtual private network services.

The digital superpower approach is to force companies to grant the state exceptional advantages, without needing a clear, or overarching, policy framework.

As in the early days of the literal Great Wall, China’s Great Firewall has historically been porous and evaded, designed more as a signal than an absolute barrier. Today, sovereigns are getting more sophisticated, exerting their authority through a more diverse array of direct and indirect means, including taxation, data protection regulation, surveillance, artificial intelligence, and a range of speech and privacy interventions to control people’s online activities. These approaches are reminiscent of the shift from direct censorship to soft censorship, controlling information by manipulating the enabling context. More than a knee-jerk response to threats to sovereignty, today’s approaches look more like assertions of national borders along more crisply defined lines.

The Warring States Period not only defined what we understand today as Chinese civilization, but it also came to define the role of the state and the acceptable tactics in the inevitable bids for power that emerged. The Internet’s Warring States Period is similarly shaping the role of states in the global internet and defining what constitutes acceptable digitalpolitik, which changes by a country’s position and market influence.

China and the United States have the population, technical capacity, and market influence to be digital superpowers. The digital superpower approach is to force companies to grant the state exceptional advantages, without needing a clear, or overarching, policy framework. The United States advocates for internet freedom abroad, for example, while continuously stockpiling digital surveillance and combat techniques for its own security services. Similarly, China’s approach is to leverage its market size and beneficial regulatory environment to force companies to build products that are at least complicit with its social surveillance and censorship systems. In both contexts, the internet superpowers develop infrastructure across the entire stack of technologies, from software to phones to fiber-optic cables.

While the global dominance of Silicon Valley companies is a familiar one, Chinese companies such as Tencent, Alibaba, and Huawei are exerting greater influence in global software and hardware markets. (Indeed, multinational technology companies have grown to a size and liquidity that they are becoming an actor class themselves.) Meanwhile, China’s Belt and Road Initiative includes significant investments in BeiDou, a competitor to the U.S. GPS system, and a fiber-optic infrastructure across partner nations. At the same time, Google Dragonfly represents a departure from the software giant’s once-principled stance against the Chinese internet model. It follows in the footsteps of the tech giant’s ongoing investments in infrastructure around the world, from the headline-grabbing Project Loon to fiber-optic cables within the United States and throughout Africa.

NATIONALIST (CONSOLIDATOR)

A country using the internet to strengthen domestic control, whether through censorship or surveillance.
Click to jump to the full map and country-by-country details.Click to jump to country-by-country details.

By contrast, the European Union has the market size, but only through multilateral international negotiation and harmonization, making it more of a digital influencer. The European Commission’s Rule 108 is arguably the most influential piece of data protection legislation in the world, having prompted adoption of its language by 129 countries. Digital influencer strategies, by contrast, are market-building by embedding theories of data rights and governance in trade agreements, like the one between the EU and Japan, that aggregate their financial and regulatory muscle behind common policy positions. We should expect more regionalist approaches in the wake of the GDPR, such as the African Union’s release of internet infrastructure security guidelines and the Pacific Alliance’s evolving agenda on digital governance and policy. Each of these approaches is beginning to define digitalpolitik, balancing mutual dependence with conflict and competition for advantage.

There are also a large number of countries—digital nationalists—focused on using digitization to consolidate domestic power and project influence extranationally.

There are also a large number of countries—digital nationalists—focused on using digitization to consolidate domestic power and project influence extranationally. This can take a wide variety of shapes. There are large digital nationalists, like India, which is using Aadhaar to require that any company that hopes to do business must also participate in a government-controlled data architecture. There is Russia, which uses a combination of intelligence assets, private companies, and other proxies to digitally disrupt other countries while encouraging local app development that it can more readily control. And Brazil, with the fifth-largest internet population in the world, regularly leads in technology initiatives like its “internet of things” policy and its Civil Rights Framework for the Internet, even as the latter has been used to justify blocking WhatsApp. Together, we might group these large entities as BRIE—Brazil, Russia, India, and the European Union—which are not quite superpowers but have enough market and political power to influence global internet governance and norms in important ways. There are also smaller digital nationalists, such as Estonia, which offers traditionally sovereign identity verification services to any person, or Uganda, with its social media tax.

The competition for digital political power isn’t just among sovereigns. There’s a growing trend toward technonationalism, expressed in the tendency to treat privately owned technology platforms as political agents of the country in which they were founded. In an age where Facebook is more populous than China, Cambridge Analytica affects more elections than any political party, and Palantir collects more intelligence than Interpol, the term “superpower” no longer need apply solely to governments. We are entering a multipolar world where internet powers need not be sovereign and multilateralism may also need to be multitrack. Large companies from the United States and China resemble empire builders, projecting their influence through domestic or state-owned technology companies.

These categories are intentionally broad and overlapping, as are the digitalpolitik philosophies and tactics employed by sovereign governments to consolidate power through digitization. Without harmonizing institutions, the internet’s warring states are engaged in a brinkmanship approach to policy evolution, where each proposal is both progress and an extraterritorial incursion. As during China’s Warring States Period, there aren’t any significant institutions at present with the jurisdiction or mandate to resolve the tensions between these approaches. A context such as this one is thus optimal for those with more power and market influence.

NATIONALIST (PROJECTOR)

A country using the internet to increase its own status internationally, whether by attracting investment or reshaping its diplomatic image.
Click to jump to the full map and country-by-country details.Click to jump to country-by-country details.


Ancient China’s Warring States Period gave rise to more than conflict. It was also marked by shifting alliances and trade networks, new forms of currency and writing, and different philosophical and political schools of thought, known popularly as the Hundred Schools of Thought. Necessity mothered an incredible amount of cultural, commercial, and scientific invention. Confucianism and Taoism, philosophical systems now endemic to China, emerged, and major tracts like the Analects, the I Ching, and the Art of War were scribed or formalized.

We are still in the early days of the internet, and there are no clear winners yet, just many possible visions of the contest.

Around the world, we are beginning to see another hundred schools of thought emerge around data rights, privacy, free speech, net neutrality, content credibility, and even financial transfer systems and protocols. The field of contention straddles the spectrums of data privacy and rights versus widespread surveillance; of full net neutrality versus tiered networks and systems like “zero rating”; and of “radical free speech” versus state censorship versus content moderation practices grounded in international human rights norms. Through laws, infrastructure development, corporate investments, malware attacks, and digital propaganda, states and multinationals assert their power while shaping internets based on their beliefs and values. These different schools will come to define our varying experiences of online life for years to come and, as artificial intelligence and the internet of things begin to embed themselves in daily routines, to critically affect our everyday lives as well. As the frontiers of states online thicken, the border between the offline and online is thinning.

We are still in the early days of the internet, and there are no clear winners yet, just many possible visions of the contest. Nor is eventual unification certain. Ancient China coalesced into the Han Dynasty, and then broke apart once more, entering into a new age of contention just as Rome collapsed at the other end of Eurasia. While in China the vision of unified empire survived, the death of Rome left only faded copies behind. Centuries later, the Peace of Westphalia gave rise to an alternative, modern conception of the state, a model that is now under strain. Institutions like the United Nations and the European Union aimed to create frameworks for global and regional cooperation, but the influence and importance of both now seem up for negotiation.

China’s Warring States Period is a reminder that even as the digital world fragments, efforts to create coherence remain vital because of the connections, institutions, and dependencies we all share. Every tactical approach taken by the internet’s warring states, as in the ancient Warring States Period, is an expression of that state’s political philosophy, market position, and military power. In this map,Here, we begin to chart the digitalpolitik shaping the internet’s new normal. These are the borders that will chart the states—and the philosophies—of tomorrow.

Sean Martin McDonald builds governance systems for technology and technology systems for governance. Sean is the CEO of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning social enterprise; the co-founder of Digital Public, which uses data trusts to help govern digital assets; and a fellow at Duke University’s Center on Law & Technology. @seanmmcdonald

An Xiao Mina is author of Memes to Movements: How the World’s Most Viral Media is Changing Social Protest and Power. She leads the product team at Meedan, is a co-founder of the Credibility Coalition, and is a research affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. @anxiaostudio

Mapping the Acts of Internet War

Hover over the colored countries for more details

Things Carried

Brazil

Computational Attacks

Platform Nationalism

Surveillance

Data Localization

Infrastructure Control

Regulatory Requirements

Financial Incentives

Cameroon

Surveillance

Infrastructure Control

Cuba

Digital Identity

Surveillance

Platform Nationalism

Infrastructure Control

Content Manipulation

Data Localization

Regulatory Requirements

China

Computational Attacks

Digital Identity

Surveillance

Platform Nationalism

Infrastructure Control

Content Manipulation

Digital Services

Data Localization

Regulatory Requirements

Financial Incentives

Egypt

Computational Attacks

Platform Nationalism

Surveillance

Content Manipulation

Infrastructure Control

Estonia

Platform Nationalism

Digital Services

Regulatory Requirements

European Union

Digital Identity

Surveillance

Platform Nationalism

Content Manipulation

Digital Services

Data Localization

Regulatory Requirements

Financial Incentives

India

Digital Identity

Surveillance

Platform Nationalism

Infrastructure Control

Content Manipulation

Digital Services

Data Localization

Regulatory Requirements

Financial Incentives

Iran

Computational Attacks

Surveillance

Platform Nationalism

Infrastructure Control

Content Manipulation

Macedonia

Computational Attacks

Surveillance

Content Manipulation

Digital Services

Financial Incentives

Malaysia

Surveillance

Content Manipulation

Infrastructure Control

Data Localization

Mexico

Computational Attacks

Surveillance

Infrastructure Control

North Korea

Computational Attacks

Digital Identity

Surveillance

Platform Nationalism

Infrastructure Control

Content Manipulation

Regulatory Requirements

Philippines

Computational Attacks

Content Manipulation

Surveillance

Digital Services

Data Localization

Papua New Guinea

Platform Nationalism

Infrastructure Control

Content Manipulation

Data Localization

Russia

Computational Attacks

Platform Nationalism

Surveillance

Content Manipulation

Infrastructure Control

Digital Services

Data Localization

Regulatory Requirements

Tanzania

Surveillance

Data Localization

Regulatory Requirements

Uganda

Surveillance

Content Manipulation

Infrastructure Control

Regulatory Requirements

United States

Computational Attacks

Digital Identity

Surveillance

Platform Nationalism

Infrastructure Control

Content Manipulation

Digital Services

Data Localization

Regulatory Requirements

Financial Incentives

United States

Computational Attacks

Digital Identity

Surveillance

Platform Nationalism

Infrastructure Control

Content Manipulation

Digital Services

Data Localization

Regulatory Requirements

Financial Incentives

Digital Superpower

A country looking to reshape the internet in its own image, leveraging every form of power it can from laws to markets.

Digital Influencer

One among many powers aspiring to push the internet in the direction it wants, and perhaps one day to be a superpower.

Nationalist (Consolidator)

A country using the internet to strengthen domestic control, whether through censorship or surveillance.

Nationalist (Projector)

A country using the internet to increase its own status internationally, whether by attracting investment or reshaping its diplomatic image.

Digital Superpower

China

China’s digital influence is a product of the centralized power and reach of the government, both as a sovereign and as a market actor. China’s digital infrastructure, which includes content filtering, censorship, surveillance, paid government commentators, and other methods, has long been a counterpoint to the dominant global internet. Early in the history of the internet, China’s government understood its twin potential in fostering both economic growth and social dissent, and it developed regulations to control fiber-optic cables and content. China uses some of the most precise, scaled censorship and control, including keyword search algorithms, human censors, and, now, image recognition tools. Even beyond technical capacity, the government has methodically used laws designed to curb rumors and to jail people based on their online activities, while real-name registration and online credit systems have ensured the ability to connect online action with offline identity.

In recent years, China has been steadily exporting this model thanks to the Digital Silk Road initiative, a government effort to export key infrastructure such as fiber-optic cables, surveillance tools, AI technologies, and hardware to states that would receive them. As much of the world, reliant on a Western internet, deals with a crisis around misinformation in digital spaces, the Chinese government additionally hosts trainings and conferences designed to teach other governments these techniques of control—and thus its vision of how the internet should operate. Iran’s National Information Network, detailed below, is one such outcome of this effort.

Digital Superpower

United States

The United States is the internet’s original hegemon, albeit ad hoc, at times, and losing ground quickly. Of the world’s largest powers, the United States has the digital strategy that leans the most heavily on private markets to project its dominance, embed its jurisdiction in international infrastructure, and generate wealth. U.S. companies enjoyed global dominance for long enough to create the world’s five largest companies (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft). As a result, U.S. internet policy is exceptionally market-centric, even before the current administration’s push for deregulation amid historic vertical integration. America’s early market success is also what positioned it to become such an instrumental part of core standards and governance bodies, including ICANN, the World Wide Web Consortium, and the Unicode Consortium.

The domestic trend in the United States is toward protectionism, political power consolidation, and institutional confusion. At the federal level, the executive branch is deregulating core consumer protections, like net neutrality, while threatening reactive, politically motivated regulatory punishment. Congress has, to date, eschewed the kind of legislative infrastructure emerging globally, like data protection or privacy legislation, thus destabilizing attempts to harmonize markets with common standards. Individual states are stepping into that vacuum, enacting policies themselves. For example, California recently passed privacy legislation, Illinois decided it can charge sales tax for internet services, and Vermont is regulating data brokers. The absence of a clear, coherent approach to internet governance and regulation threatens to stall U.S. dominance and is creating space for a range of other countries to contend with their digital political philosophies and approaches. The previously market-based approach could be eroding in the face of foreign challenges. As its main rival, China, projects power outward via State-connected companies, the United States has been moving to block access to its allies’ markets and target Chinese firms. The future may see much tighter regulation as online security becomes ever more of a concern. A country that once saw itself as setting the rules may end up more concerned with defending its own digital borders than establishing global standards.

Digital Influencer

Brazil

In 2014, the country established the Brazilian Civil Rights Framework for the Internet, known in Portuguese as the Marco Civil, and this August it passed a General Data Protection Law modeled on the EU’s GDPR. The law was passed during a period of tumult and transition in Brazilian politics, raising questions about whether incoming President Jair Bolsonaro will implement the law as designed by February 2020.

Brazil’s digitization has also had its share of challenges: Brazil’s elections revealed WhatsApp as a key battleground for campaigning and misinformation, with allegations that Bolsonaro’s campaign in particular benefited from paid operatives who flooded private networks with messages. This reflects a new tactic of influence that included, under the previous administration, frequent shutdowns of WhatsApp and planned ones of Facebook, justified under the language of the Marco Civil. The country has invested heavily in fiber-optic infrastructure both locally and abroad to improve its position in the global digital sphere.

Digital Influencer

European Union

The European Union takes a more constructive approach to internet governance, building consensus among a range of sovereign interests and acting almost like a trade union. Unlike China or the United States, the EU doesn’t export internet policy through its companies; it does so by negotiating access to its consumers, both with platform companies and other sovereigns. The EU’s power is, primarily, a product of its market size and its focus on negotiated compromise. While the EU’s most-discussed regulation is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), its most influential rule has been the Council of Europe’s Convention 108. According to scholarly analysis, Convention 108 has been adopted, directly or indirectly, by more than 120 countries, thus making it the closest thing in the world to a customary international data privacy law.

While the EU aspires to be the most influential internet policymaker, its approach focuses on stability and harmonization as the core value propositions. The EU model is the most replicable, but it also relies the most heavily on the strength of its regulatory institutions and its ability to project jurisdiction over international technology companies, which are less replicable.

Digital Influencer

India

As the world’s largest democracy, India has an approach to internet governance that’s largely focused on consolidating domestic power and market access, an effective strategy given its market size. In 2016, India’s national government rolled out the Aadhaar biometric identification system as a cornerstone of engagement with public services. Aadhaar has already reached a staggering 1.22 billion people, becoming the global benchmark for digital identity systems while raising foundational rights and security issues, given multiple reported breaches. A recent Supreme Court verdict imposed some of the largest restrictions to date on Aadhaar data, preventing private companies from requiring identification details for service. For better or worse, Aadhaar is one of the world’s largest sociotechnical standards, a foundation for the digital vision promoted by the government of India, and a model for other governments considering biometric systems for citizen records.

Digital Influencer

Russia

Russia is disproportionately influential in digitalpolitik due to its aggressive use of intelligence tactics, delivered at digital scale, to achieve its political objectives. Early this year, Russia’s Internet Research Agency became a globally recognized name after the U.S. special counsel investigation’s indictment of 12 operatives from Russia on charges of spreading disinformation during the 2016 election. The Internet Research Agency, whose activities have gone on for years in Russia and post-Soviet states, employs some 1,000 people to establish blogs and spread memes and messages, with a general goal of amplifying social discord online by tapping into existing issues of social discontent. Russian activities on Twitter alone came from 3,841 accounts, and the agency is believed to have a hand in online media manipulation efforts in Ukraine as well.

At home, the government has encouraged a homegrown app ecosystem, including VKontakte (social) and Yandex (search), while establishing censorship and surveillance mechanisms to control online speech. To help shape online discourse, it has required popular bloggers to register with the state and therefore be liable for government-defined notions of accuracy.

Nationalist (Consolidator)

Cameroon

In response to 2017 political opposition, the government shut down internet connectivity in the northwest and southwest regions. While there were a wide range of internet shutdowns around the world in 2016 and 2017, Cameroon’s was unique in that it was explicitly political and selectively applied.

Nationalist (Consolidator)

Cuba

The government has always controlled Cubans’ access to the internet through a combination of politically motivated censorship and cost, making it one of the more restrictive media environments in the world. Cuba’s censorship, however, is an international issue, and the United States in particular has been caught in multiple international incidents trying to subvert domestic controls. Locally, el paquete semanal (the “weekly packet”) and mesh networks operate in a gray market to provide some local access to internet-like services and digital content.

Nationalist (Consolidator)

Egypt

After being a focal point for techno-optimism in 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring, Egypt has innovated on digital authoritarianism. The first signs of the government’s control of the internet started with its infamous shutdown of traffic that year. Subsequent administrations have implemented additional methods, including arresting online government critics, harassing journalists and LGBTQ people, and blocking web sites and digital voice calls.

Nationalist (Consolidator)

Macedonia

The 2016 U.S. presidential elections put Macedonia in the spotlight, given the role of teens and young men in the town of Veles in generating over 100 sites designed to circulate viral misinformation. Since then, investigative journalists have pointed out links with U.S. partners, sparking an international investigation, including one person of interest connected with Russia’s Internet Research Agency.

Nationalist (Consolidator)

Malaysia

Earlier this year, then-Prime Minister Najib Razak introduced a law designed to curb government-defined “fake news” through fines and jail time. After the May election, the new leader, Mahathir Mohamad, successfully pushed to have it rolled back, and many celebrated it as a precedent for Southeast Asia, where other nations have been considering similar laws.

Nationalist (Consolidator)

Mexico

The federal government has purchased spyware designed for criminals and terrorists, but it has repurposed those tools in a bid to intimidate activists and journalists as well. During the recent presidential election season, candidates accused each other of using both paid commentators and bots, a sign of growing recognition of these techniques in shaping online discourse.

Nationalist (Consolidator)

North Korea

North Korea has, historically, restricted internet access more than any other country by avoiding it nearly entirely. In recent years, it has developed an intranet by modeling the technical functionality of the global internet, but only with locally generated and approved content. Even with this system, information enters the country in the form of USB sticks smuggled in for both commercial and political reasons, making outside digital media accessible to those who can afford a device to consume the content.

Nationalist (Consolidator)

Papua New Guinea

In May, the government banned Facebook for a month, with an express goal of identifying users behind fake accounts and to understand its influence in society, while considering the possibility of a national social media platform. Some expressed concern the move was designed to curb government criticism.

Nationalist (Consolidator)

The Philippines

A sophisticated network of paid commentators and bloggers influence online discourse in the Philippines in favor of President Rodrigo Duterte. In a country where 97 percent of citizens with access to the internet use Facebook, the platform has become a key space for political influence through networked propaganda efforts and online harassment designed to censor dissenting voices.

Nationalist (Consolidator)

Tanzania

The government requires registration for online media creators, at a cost of $920 per year, and levies significant fines for content it finds offensive. The economic and political implications of the government serving as an intermediary for those seeking to contribute to the internet are difficult to quantify, but it is chilling to speech.

Nationalist (Consolidator)

Uganda

The Parliament of Uganda recently passed a “gossip tax,” for the use of social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Viber. One unique aspect of the Ugandan tax is that it is levied through mobile network operators and only applies to a select few online services. This effectively creates a financial barrier to social media usage in a country where the average monthly income is around $100, while generating revenue for the state.

Nationalist (Projector)

Australia

The Australian government has long played a surprisingly strong role in signals intelligence, and its digital policy has continued that tradition—arguably at the cost of proper process and civil liberties. The recent Assistance and Access Bill demands total access to private data for government agencies and back-doored encryption that could affect the security of others.

Nationalist (Projector)

Austria

Austria is one of several markets where U.S. tech giants such as Amazon are facing serious challenges under local regulations for their monopoly roles.

Nationalist (Projector)

Estonia

One of the clearest examples of what we could classify as a digital nationalist and projector, the government of Estonia leverages its digital investments to provide sovereign services extranationally. Its flagship is the e-residency program, which provides services like identity verification, business registration, and visas. Estonia is also trying to attract international commercial investment by creating favorable tax, research, and licensing infrastructure.

Nationalist (Projector)

Iran

The government has invested more than $6 billion into the National Information Network. Touting faster speeds and local services for search and social media, the network also allows greater control over data flows into and out of the country, including throttling of international content. Foreign platforms such as Instagram and Telegram remain popular, though intermittently blocked, and the country has also been shown to engage in foreign influence operations, using blogs and social media accounts in nearly a dozen languages.

Antarctica

As the continent of ice undergoes a new historic period of geopolitical contention around resources, tourism, and land, it is also a key location for satellite base stations. In Antarctica, China has established the first permanent air field and tripled its number of research facilities. The United States, China, and Russia maintain stations that coordinate with their competing satellite systems: GPS, BeiDou, and GLONASS.

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