An open, unfiltered internet could be the key to overthrowing autocrats

An open, unfiltered internet could be the key to overthrowing autocrats

Look for news of the Russian war in Ukraine or women-led protests in Iran and you’ll see violence and bloodshed as Russians attack civilians and Iranian police target protesters. Certainly, these images reflect the reality on the ground and we are right to increase our support for those who directly fight the regimes.

But in the information age, information itself is also a key weapon and should not be ignored in the fight against authoritarian regimes. The fact is that the long-term path of war in Ukraine runs through downtown Moscow and the streets of St. Petersburg, just as the long-term path of protests in Iran runs through downtown Tehran and the religious centers of Qom. The long-term battle is about the hearts and minds of the peoples of Russia and Iran, who have the ability to end the reigns of terror that President Vladimir Putin and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have inflicted on their respective nations, peoples and neighbors.

In Ukraine, military casualties alone are unlikely to be enough to convince Putin to surrender. On the contrary, the more he suffers at the hands of Western weapons, the more likely it is that Putin will resort to increasingly brutal tactics. As we have already seen, as casualties mounted, Putin increasingly lambasted civilian targets and waved the flag of using nuclear first. Moreover, as these losses increase further, the chances of Putin being overthrown by an even more aggressive fanatic only increase, as he may be seen as weak and incapable of success by the power-hungry fanatics who supported this invasion from the start.

Similarly, in Iran, as we have seen, images of women standing up against their long-time male oppressors and openly challenging the regime have been crucial in forcing the beginnings of change from within.

A key way to affect this dynamic is for allies to provide open and secure internet access to the Russian and Iranian peoples, giving them access to information without the prying eyes of their governments and without the content being filtered or their actions are followed. Allowing citizens access to Western media and accurate, up-to-date information on the ground can help the United States and our allies break the grip of the internal Russian and Iranian propaganda machines.

With such access, Russians and Iranians could more clearly see for themselves the violence imposed on Ukrainian and Iranian women, learn the truth about their leaders’ growing failures, and potentially hear the voices of alternative leaders. Additionally, open and secure internet access will help Russian and Iranian citizens organize and mobilize by reducing the risk of being caught in the extensive digital surveillance conducted by the Putin and Khameini regime.

In many ways, open and secure Internet access is the modern equivalent of the broadcast regimes that were so successful during the Cold War: the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and many others. ‘others. Today’s abilities are even more powerful because they allow resistance movements to directly defend and publish information and to recruit and mobilize the population. Online videos can provide training, WhatsApp can help mobilize, Google Maps can direct forces and protesters, and Twitter can offer news and ideas, to name a few.

Indeed, these aspects of the flow of information are exactly why authoritarian regimes routinely impose censorship and monitor their countries’ internet activities. Free access to information is the weapon that most frightens authoritarians like Putin and Khameini.

Fortunately, the United States and our allies have the technology to change that today. Whether providing high-speed Internet access through small satellite hotspots or providing access to heavily encrypted virtual private networks, allied governments can partner with private companies to help citizens authoritarian countries to bypass regime firewalls and connect directly and securely to the open Internet. This tactic will be difficult for authoritarian regimes to fight, as seeking to locate and arrest those connected to these hotspots will likely backfire and only further alienate populations hungry for more information.

Funding the deployment of such access points in authoritarian countries, ensuring consistent and secure access, and working with the private sector to develop the next generation of such access, including capabilities that are easier to conceal and harder to block, will also be essential for the United States and our allies.

The only “good” end to the war in Ukraine and the protests in Iran will be when their future governments decide to end the brutal actions against their own people and their neighbors. To help those who seek to achieve these goals, a critical weapon will be one that can break the back of the Russian and Iranian propaganda machines: open and secure access to the Internet for their citizens.

Ram Fish is CEO of 19Labs and a lecturer at Case Western Reserve University. Brian Gran is a professor of sociology, law and applied social sciences at Case Western Reserve University. Jamil N. Jaffer is the founder and executive director of the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia School of Law and former chief counsel and senior adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee..

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