Prof. Roya Ensafi spoke on a panel about “democracy-affirming technology” at the Summit for Democracy, hosted by President Joe Biden. She joined other experts to discuss how tech built with democratic values at its core can strengthen rules-based governance worldwide.
The virtual Summit for Democracy was organized by the US State Department and took place on December 8, 2021. The gathering brought together Heads of Government, members of civil society, and other leaders “to set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal.” Ensafi spoke as part of a panel during the session titled “Democracy Affirming Technology,” which sought to tap the optimism of the early internet age to explore a class of technologies “built with democratic values at their core.” Of particular interest to Ensafi was internet technology and anti-censorship initiatives.
“Advanced networking technologies are inherently ‘dual-use,'” Ensafi said during her address. “Technologies like deep-packet inspection are part of what makes the modern Internet possible, but authoritarian governments now use them to censor the Internet.”
She went on to describe a rise in the frequency, severity, and duration of censorship around the globe. Access Now, a digital civil rights advocacy organization, through the #KeepItOn coalition, recorded at least 50 cases of political censorship in 21 countries over just the first five months of 2021.
“To fight back for democracy, we need new tools to bring transparency and accountability to Internet censorship,” Ensafi said.
As an example, Ensafi cited her lab’s Censored Planet project, a global observatory for Internet censorship that tracks the availability of thousands of sensitive websites across 221 countries in close to real time. With Censored Planet, she explains, researchers and activists can rapidly act on censorship events as they happen, in response to world events. The observatory has already shed light on traffic interception, website throttling, and website blocking in countries including Kazakhstan and Russia.
Ensafi argued further that in addition to holding censors accountable, researchers also need to provide technologies to help people evade online blocking.
“Anti-censorship technologies, including monitoring and circumvention tools, give us hope that the Internet can remain a place of free speech and democratization and that the international community can hold censoring governments to account,” Ensafi said.
Ensafi also addressed the changing landscape of censorship technology and its back-and-forth with circumvention techniques. End-to-end encryption, says Ensafi, is one example of popular privacy protection that is now being combatted by many governments with spyware apps. Other strategies she highlighted included pressuring platforms and companies into removing unwanted content.
“I call on democratic nations to demand greater transparency when tech companies cooperate in censorship,” Ensafi concluded. “The last few years have seen flourishing cooperation between researchers and local activists organizations and pro democracy activists around the world. These relationships help ensure that effective technical responses get into the hands of citizens when they need them.”