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The online war between freedom of speech and internet censorship: part 1

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This is Part One of a blog on ‘Reconnecting Freedom of Speech’

2020 has made it obvious that the United States is a country suffering from rapid geopolitical decline, alongside moral and cultural decay.

The fact that Trump’s threat to ban TikTok faced more scrutiny than China’s human rights records and hostile actions against the United States exemplified this. 

The Founders created a system that would only work to govern moral people, and we face the question of whether Americans are still such a people. But part of being a moral people is upholding the norm of moral and limited government.

How TikTok is driving conversations around internet censorship

Allegiances and ideology aside, opponents of the TikTok ban do raise one compelling point. Are we now going to allow the U.S. government to decide what apps people may install on their phones? 

While this may be inconsequential compared to human rights and national security issues, opponents of this ban are correct to raise the question of what will become of the land of the free, and indeed the free world, if we choose to go down this path.

Despite the idea of a TikTok ban being a prudent move from the perspectives of information security, intelligence, and privacy, it is merely a band-aid on a gaping wound if the U.S. seeks to compete successfully against China in the long run.

Government overreach is now a product of information warfare

This is especially the case if the goal is to avoid resorting to Chinese-style internet censorship ourselves. Allowing governments to decide what information people may consume, what programs and data they may have on a device they own, sets a very dangerous precedent. 

A precedent that, like the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, may grant the government powers far in excess of what is necessary to fulfill the original purpose of assuming this power. 

Addressing this issue and creating alternatives to the government simply banning certain apps in the future will require the United States to move away from the reactionary, oversimplified, and fear-based approach to China, geopolitics, and the internet that it has long held.

To win the information war against China, the United States must proactively promote freedom as part of a campaign of active measures against the Chinese regime, its internet authoritarianism, and its allies. The only question left for those serious about preserving the United States and the freedom it represents, is how this can be accomplished.  

To answer this question, we must first examine the true nature of the confrontation between the U.S. and China, what is at stake, and the relative strengths and weaknesses the U.S. possesses relative to China and other authoritarian regimes. 

In part two we will discuss what the United States can do to compete more effectively against China.

Geopolitical confrontation and information warfare: examining positive and normative perspectives

The first key point to understand is that the competition between the U.S. and China in the online space is multifaceted. It is an extension of the geopolitical conflict between the two countries as they seek to gain more power. 

One component is the positive element, driven by power politics and divergent national interests. The United States has numerous economic, military, political, and diplomatic interests that it must protect, while also undermining the interests of enemies like China.

The United States has an economic interest in ensuring its companies dominate the internet, an information security interest in ensuring data is secure from the Chinese government, and a military interest in ensuring it pioneers and controls the dual-use technologies that are part of this and which can have military applications. 

As China pursues the weakening of the United States and seeks world domination, as evidenced by its colonial ambitions in Africa, mercantilist trade strategies, and the history of arming terrorists and other U.S. enemies, it seeks to pursue these same goals but for its own benefit, and at the expense of the United States.

United States and China: two competing world orders

However, there is also a normative component that makes this situation more complicated than it may otherwise be. The U.S. and China represent not only two competing superpowers, but also two divergent worldviews and concepts of world order. 

The United States has more at stake than merely retaking its status as the world’s dominant power from China. It also faces the challenge of how to preserve a free and open internet, an internet that protects American values such as freedom of speech, free expression, and the free exchange of ideas, while projecting this structure worldwide. 

Though the United States has not supported unlimited internet freedom, it is still far removed from China, which seeks to ensure that information is completely controlled by the communist party’s goals and ideology. A worldwide social credit system, a global great firewall, and extensive internet surveillance are used to prevent freedom of speech and the spread of ideas online that the Chinese Communist Party considers dangerous.

Both regimes are built on an ideological foundation, and neither can afford to concede a set of core beliefs that forms the basis for their soft power and cultural influence.

With the Chinese regime exerting massive influence over U.S. and global media, norms, and culture, it is clear that the U.S. has been losing this information war. But why is that and how can we turn it around? The answer is that the United States has been playing to its weaknesses in both the positive and normative arenas of geopolitical conflict online.

The Dragon and the Eagle: assessing strengths and weaknesses

Democracies and authoritarian regimes each have different advantages and disadvantages when it comes to their ability to compete in an information-rich environment. 

Democracy has the advantage that free and open debate can allow for better ideas to be formulated through the free marketplace of ideas. Freedom of speech also helps create a fertile breeding ground for the types of disruptive ideologies that compel people to challenge the status quo and resist the will of authoritarian governments.

However, democracy is also extremely easy to subvert. A system of limited government faces obstacles due to checks and balances that prevent it from coordinating an effective response to foreign disinformation, propaganda, media influence, intelligence gathering, and other such tools.

Authoritarian regimes, by contrast, are the opposite. These regimes are extremely resistant to subversion because they can crack down on hostile movements before they even become strong enough to pose a threat. They do not uphold freedom of speech, and face few or no limits on government power. Thus, they can use all means necessary to prevent foreign actors from manipulating the country’s population.

Ideologies dangerous to the regime’s stability, or favorable to the interests of enemies, can be snuffed out without much fear of any backlash. However, these types of regimes do not benefit from the free marketplace of ideas, which makes innovation difficult and hinders their ability to challenge and resist ineffective ideas when such ideas are presented or supported by those in power. 

This can lead to stagnation and an ineffective government that is as dangerous to an authoritarian regime as subversion is to a democracy.

Rising surveillance with no end in sight

Like much of the world, the United States has caught the censorship and surveillance bug. Particularly since 9/11, the United States has sought to increase the government’s power to take down illegal internet content, monitor religious minorities such as Muslims, and limit access to information deemed dangerous. 

These strategies may serve a purpose in certain limited instances, such as combating the spread of child pornography or disrupting known terrorist networks. However, they are ineffective when used as a universal solution to the country’s problems, especially when trying to compete with authoritarian regimes in the online world. This is because they play to democracy’s weaknesses in both the positive and normative arenas.

Why China has a major lead in the information war

In terms of the positive element of geopolitical confrontation in the information space, these strategies are losing because a democratic state will never be able to control information as well as an authoritarian one. 

We can ban apps, take down websites, prosecute criminals and terrorists etc., but checks and balances invariably stand in the way of such actions. Due process, lawsuits, burdens of proof, and the issue of securing public approval constrain the state’s ability to act. Countries like China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea face few or no such constraints.

The failure of such an approach at the normative level is even more apparent. If the U.S. were to resort to censorship and surveillance, we would be conceding the normative ground almost entirely to China and its authoritarian allies. The U.S. may be a powerful empire in this situation, but its life as a free country and the leader of the free world would be over.

China would emerge as the victor in the normative theater of conflict by cementing authoritarian control of the internet and disregard for freedom of speech as the international standard. Worst of all, the U.S. would be sacrificing defining characteristics of its civilization, and with it, its ability to provide a true alternative to the Chinese style of government. Much of America’s soft power and culture would be lost in the process, not to mention that the rights of American citizens would be greatly infringed upon.

A long road ahead for American victory

In other words, the United States is fighting on the enemy’s ground and losing. Strategies such as banning TikTok could buy time and limit Chinese power, but they only forestall an inevitable Chinese victory if they are all that is done.

Miyamoto Musashi wrote in the book of Five Rings, “In contests of strategy it is bad to be led about by the enemy. You must always be able to lead the enemy about.”  The U.S. has allowed authoritarian regimes to lead it about.

Changing this is the key to victory, so that those authoritarian regimes may instead be forced to respond to American actions. Rather than trying to survive by parrying China’s blows and acting in purely defensive ways, policymakers ought to use freedom of speech as a sword with which to slay the beast of tyranny.

Click on the button below to read Part Two of this blog on ‘Reconnecting Freedom of Speech’.

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.


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