Biden Must Defend Democracy Against Rising Authoritarianism | Opinion

This week, President Biden will meet with more than 100 world leaders, civil society actors and private-sector representatives for the Summit for Democracy. Biden's focus will be on "renewing democracy in the United States and around the world," but should also include the place where the biggest threat to democracy is emerging: the internet.

Russia and China have already proved a formidable adversary to the West by interfering in domestic processes and elections and launching offensive cyberattacks. Now, they are working together to create global cybersecurity norms at the United Nations. The Biden administration must focus on promoting global digital democracy at the Democracy Summit and defend it from authoritarians seeking to undermine the West.

Unsurprisingly, neither Russia nor China was invited to the summit, and both have derided the gathering. Both countries are infamous for promoting forms of digital authoritarianism—using information technology to surveil, repress and manipulate domestic and foreign populations. China pioneered Digital Age censorship with its "Great Firewall." In 2014, Putin asserted that the internet is a project of the CIA, and he has more recently decided to displace the World Wide Web within its borders with a homegrown "Ru-Net." China's 2016 cybersecurity law aimed to censor, control data, survey people and criminalize online activities. Russia followed suit and, in 2021, Putin signed legislation further restricting social media platforms in order to protect Russia's "digital sovereignty." The new laws theoretically allow Russia to impose fines on platforms that do not block forbidden content such as calls for suicide, child pornography or information on drug use—but in reality, they act as a facade for Putin's internet control.

Both Russia and China perceive the open internet as a threat to domestic stability—so they work together to control it. In 2015, the two giants signed an agreement "on cooperation in ensuring international information security." In 2016, the two countries' joint statement on regulating "information space" included the "principle of respecting national sovereignty in information space." In 2019, Russia and China signed a cooperation treaty, ostensibly aimed at combating illegal content online, but which in reality was designed to curtail internet freedoms.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speeches during his
Russian President Vladimir Putin speeches during his talks with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (not pictured) in Brasilia, Brazil, November 14, 2019. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Russia and China likewise refused to join the only legally binding international cyber treaty—the Budapest Convention—because their authoritarian governments criticized it as too intrusive. Nonetheless, in the face of the upcoming Democracy Summit, Russian and Chinese diplomats have claimed "there is only one international system in the world, i.e. the international system with the United Nations at its core."

Of course, this stand for the UN is both self-interested and duplicitous. Russia's skillful maneuvering at the UN has hamstrung American efforts toward productive cybersecurity outcomes for years. In 2018, after an initial halt in UN negotiations on cyber threat policy, Russia splintered the UN's efforts by pioneering the Open-Ended Working Group, and has used this group to ensure its favored positions on cyber issues are adopted by the broader UN. In 2019, Russia (with the support of China) beat out the U.S. in receiving UN General Assembly approval to draft a global treaty to combat cybercrime. Should this treaty be accepted by the UN, it will likely further deteriorate global digital democracy.

And it doesn't end there: Russia's and China's attempts to control the UN's International Telecommunications Union (ITU) have been gaining steam. In October 2022, Russia and the U.S. will compete to head the ITU, an immensely influential body in the governance of information and communication technologies.

If the Democracy Summit really seeks to curb the rise of authoritarianism, it should take note of where the world's strongest autocrats are focusing: online. In other words, the Democracy Summit should be a starting point to build international coalitions of the willing against Russian and Chinese attempts to reshape cyber norms via the UN. In the fight for global democracy, cyberspace is the frontline.

Ivana Stradner and Shane Tews are fellows at the American Enterprise Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.