U.S., Six Other Nations Vow to Crack Down on “Digital Authoritarianism”

The U.S. along with Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, have pledged to impede the use of technology by authoritarian governments to spy on their citizens and commit other human rights abuses.

The partnering countries announced their intentions on the final day of the Summit for Democracy, the White House’s virtual gathering of officials from more than 100 countries aimed at strengthening democracies. In the larger view, the agreement calls for the countries to conjoin their policies for exporting technologies used by certain countries to suppress democracy. Specifically, the Export Controls and Human Rights Initiative means that the seven nations will craft a non-binding, voluntary written code of conduct to stem the rise in “digital authoritarianism,” particularly in China and Russia but elsewhere as well, that use advanced software to monitor dissidents and journalists, leverage social media to control public opinion and suppress certain information.

“Authoritarian governments increasingly are using surveillance tools and other related technologies in connection with serious human rights abuses, both within their countries and across international borders, including in acts of transnational repression to censor political opposition and track dissidents,” they collectively said in a statement announcing the initiative.

Along those lines, the U.S. has imposed extensive sanctions on dozens of people and entities linked to China, Bangladesh, Myanmar and North Korea over human rights abuses. The U.S. has also placed the SenseTime Group, a Chinese artificial intelligence company, on an investment blacklist, according to a Reuters report. The actions came on Human Rights Day as the Summit closed.  In the same vein, in late November Apple sued the NSO Group, a controversial Israeli state-backed spyware developer, accusing the secretive company of using its powerful Pegasus surveillance tool to target and track certain iPhone users worldwide. Apple’s complaint alleges that NSO used Forcedentry, an exploit first identified by cyber researcher Citizen Lab, to remotely install Pegasus on victims’ iOS, MacOS and WatchOS devices.

In a related move, the U.S. also announced a new $424 million fund, called the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, to support free and independent media, fortify anti-corruption programs, bolster democratic reformers, and promote technology that supports democracy, defends free and fair elections and upholds political processes. Samantha Power, the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said at the event that the U.S. also will invest up to $20 million annually to help the bureau set guidelines for open source technology products, the New York Times reported. In part, the money will go towards a joint effort with Canada and Denmark to set standards for governments to use surveillance technology that does not violate human rights. In addition, the U.S. will commit up to $3.75 million to fund pro-privacy artificial intelligence, and establish a separate fund for anti-censorship technology, Power said.

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