Stephen Roach interrogates the distinction between US-style cyber-libertarianism and Chinese-style digital surveillance

Stephen Roach interrogates the distinction between US-style cyber-libertarianism and Chinese-style digital surveillance

Plenty has been said, and rightfully so, about the violent insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6. Politicians are grappling with issues of legal and moral accountability. But the horrific events also touch on a critical contradiction of modern societies: the internet’s role as an instrument of democracy’s destruction.

It was not supposed to be this way. The internet’s open architecture has long been extolled by cyber-libertarian futurists as a powerful new democratising force. Information is free and available instantaneously – and anyone can now vote with a mere click.

The rapid expansion of the public square is offered as exhibit A. Internet penetration went from 1% to 87% of the US population from 1990 to 2018, far outstripping the surge in the world as a whole from zero to 51% over the same period. The United States, the world’s oldest democracy, led the charge in embracing new technologies of empowerment.

The problem, of course, lies in internet governance – namely, the absence of rules. Even as we extol the virtues of the digital world, to say nothing of the acceleration of digitisation during the COVID-19 pandemic, the dark side has become impossible to ignore. The Western model of open-ended connectivity has given rise to platforms for trade in illicit drugs, pornography, and pedophilia. It has also fueled political extremism, social polarisation, and now attempted insurrection. The virtues of cyber-libertarianism have become inseparable from its vices.

The Chinese model provides a stark contrast. Its censorship-intensive approach to internet governance is anathema to free societies. The state (or the Communist Party) not only restricts public discourse but favours surveillance over privacy. For China, governance is all about social, economic, and, ultimately, political stability. As a self-proclaimed bastion of democracy, America obviously doesn’t see it that way. Censorship of any sort is viewed with abject scorn.

Yet scorn is a good way – to put it mildly – to describe most Americans’ reaction to the deadly assault on the US Capitol. Internet-enabled social and political mobilisation – first evident in Iran’s 2009 Green Movement and then in the Arab Spring of 2011 – has now struck at the heart of America.

Obviously, there is a major difference: Protesting citizens in authoritarian Iran and Arab countries were on the outside looking in, yearning for democracy. In the US, the attack on the citadel of democracy came from within, sparked by the president himself. This raises important questions about America’s own stability imperatives – and the failures of internet governance in revealing them.

US digital platforms – from Twitter and Facebook to Apple and Google – have taken matters into their own hands. Breaching a once sacrosanct line, they have closed down the insurrectionist-in-chief, Donald Trump. Yet this one-off reaction is hardly a substitute for governance. Understandably, there are great misgivings about entrusting corporate leaders with the fundamental task of protecting democracy.

But that is not the only line that has been crossed in the US. As Shoshanna Zuboff shows in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, the business models of Google, Amazon, and Facebook are based on the use of digital technology to gather and monetise personal data. This blurs the distinction between cyber-libertarianism and Chinese-style surveillance, and it highlights the essence of the privacy issue – proprietary ownership of personal data.

The COVID-19 crisis offers yet another perspective on surveillance and privacy. Here, too, China and the US bookend the debate. China’s response to the first sign of outbreaks – including the current one in Hebei province – stresses aggressive lockdowns, mandatory testing and masking, and QR-code app-based contact tracing. In the US, these are all matters of contentious political debate, viewed by many as unacceptable transgressions in a free and open society.

At one level, China’s results speak for themselves. There have been only minor outbreaks following the initial surge in Wuhan. Unfortunately, America’s second wave – far worse than the initial carnage in the spring of 2020 – also speaks for itself.

Yet, as a recent Pew Research survey indicates, fully 40-50% of the American public still resist the discipline of science-based practices such as mobile contact tracing and engagement with public health officials. Couple that with significant opposition to vaccines and there is reason to believe that core tenets of democratic freedom are being twisted into an excuse to ignore the perils of COVID-19.

Whether or not we want to admit it, the aspirations and values of the so-called originalist interpretation of American democracy are being challenged as never before. The insurrection of January 6 and the pandemic share one critical implication: the potential breakdown of order in a free society. It’s not that China has it right. It’s that we may have it wrong. Unfortunately, today’s hyper-polarisation makes it exceedingly difficult to find a middle ground.

Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals.

Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarised national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk.


Stephen S. Roach is a faculty member at Yale University and the author of Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021, published here with permission.

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30 Comments

A great really timely article.
The reality is that up until the internet there was never the freedom to widely express views as there is today. The editors of what is now mainstream press had tremendous power in “censoring” what information was publicly widely available even though with the bias of that organisation.
False information - such as Trump’s “steal” found to be unsubstantiated in over 60 court cases and debunked others in authority including Republicans - would not have been given the exposure that Trump was able to give it.
While there is a principle of freedom of speech, what must go along with that, as with any freedom or privilege, is responsibility. Trump had utter disregard for any responsibility other than to himself. This was demonstrated in the Capitol incident when Pence’s life was seriously at risk because of Trump’s action but Trump demonstrated no concern regarding that.
While this was an USA issue, it is also fast becoming a serious issue in NZ.

Internet first stole your privacy, now it has robbed you of democracy. Robber Barons has a completely new meaning now.

Balance should be the most important thing that every party, politicians, and policy makers seek when it comes almost everything.

Balance or middle or central (中庸) has been one of the fundamental concepts in every aspect of China for 5000 years.

Hope the West has the mental capacity to learn from it.

Give up, will you? You are either blindly enamoured of the CCP or you are having us on, either way, it's all getting a bit yawn.

CCP for last 70 years so the other 4930 years were not CCP. If he is right then China would be OK without the CCP. I tend to agree.

The "Great Leap Forward" and "Cultural Revolution" looked very unbalanced to me. China has been trying to economically and socially recover ever since. One only needs to compare China to the successes of the sovereign and independent nation Taiwan to illustrate this point.

The internet isn't the problem, it's people. For all our greatness, we're inherently flawed.

This article is case in point giving gravitas to reporting that comes out of China.

At one level, China’s results speak for themselves. There have been only minor outbreaks following the initial surge in Wuhan.

Almost every country with population in close proximity that's had widespread COVID has an identical chart curve except China. The data coming from the CCP is laughable. https://g.co/kgs/ZjVqiY

There's little disagreement about the veracity of Chinese "official" data, however one thing is clear - when the Chinese state govt says "do this" it's done. No ifs, buts or maybes. Remember the Beijing Olympics? Every taxi driver was instructed to learn and be capable in english and they complied - imagine telling every taxi driver here to be capable in Mandarin?? - there would've been a nationwide "F@#K you - they can learn English"

Not true - the cremation data that was circulating in June suggested China's reporting was completely bogus.

Ezy
You peddling your utter rubbish again for the third time?.
What is your source for this information on cremation data?
You need to FRONT UP with a credible source (e.g. China's reporting on crematorium data) and not hearsay or your credibility is absolutely zilch as the examples below demonstrate.

You are a follower of conspiracy theories.
Fact check 1:
"by Ezy | 15th Jan 21, 7:43am
The US now has a COVID death rate of 1189/mln
Only 0.1%. That's the same as the HN strains of seasonal flu"
I gave the CDC link showing US seasonal flu for 2019 was 38,000 - US covid figure is over 10 times that.

Fact check 2:
"by Ezy | 15th Jan 21, 2:49pm
More people die in car accidents per year in the (USA) than this (covid), but you don't see them stopping people from driving do you?"
I gave the link for the US official annual death toll from motor accidents in 2019; it was 38.000 - US Covid figure over 10 times that.

For your credibility you need to put up a reliable source - and conspiracy theory sites do not wash.

And as for COVID death data the total deaths for working age population (you know, the ones who stop the economy from falling off a cliff) in the USA is 64,539. It was a tongue in cheek comment, but it's actually not too dissimilar to car accident data in the USA per year. When you factor in deaths from cars related to emissions (cancer) and climate change cars probably kill exponentially more healthy people than COVID, although I doubt the data is recorded.

https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid_weekly/index.htm#AgeAndSex

Any chance of getting every NZ taxi driver fluent in English?

The internet and especially social media and the anonymity that goes with it, has enabled people to say what they are really thinking without the usual restrictions of personal censure. It should come as no surprise that there is a septic, fetid underbelly alive and well in modern society. Social media has merely amplified it with it's instant connectivity and the ability to coalesce with other like minded individuals. Is it really that surprising that we see the current climate of division and angst? Even here there are many comments that wouldn't be spoken to the individual face to face

Eh? The comments on here are generally educated, well thought out, and provide a pretty balanced view across the spectrum engaged in a mostly respectful manner. It's funny because I've never really seen those traits in the majority of your comments Hook. Maybe you should do a bit of navel gazing to see what your underbelly looks like?

Ezy, you should spend a bit more time reading the posts. Either that or try and play "Devils advocate" to any of the patently "off the wall" positions some take. It doesn't happen regularly but there is plenty of vitriol waiting to be vented. Usually it's disguised as "educated comment" but it's there nonetheless.
There are many ripostes to comments that if someone said that to me in person they'd get a good swift smack in the mouth or at least a clip around the ears.

they'd get a good swift smack in the mouth or at least a clip around the ears

Perhaps a good strapping would be better? So easy to spot the boomers on here. Quickly becoming old fashioned and irrelevant. I would happily say that to you in person. Would probably even let you hit me, although you might break all your brittle hand bones?

See now there you go with your misguided assumptions again. If you don't believe there is a good sized chunk of human society that has a malevolent streak that is amplified by the anonymity of social media then that's your prerogative. Most thinking people would admit it exists - but not all are honest enough to accept it.

The internet isn't the problem, it's people. For all our greatness, we're inherently flawed. - Ezy

Ezy, you should spend a bit more time reading the posts. - Hook

OK boomer.

So you'll be in the second bunch of people then huh?

Isn't democracy just they way we elect our parliament house etc?

Andrew, democracy is the art of annoying everyone to the same degree. How many times have you heard politicians say " well, everyone's unhappy so it must be good policy"??

Unfortunately, more controls and censorship will come, especially on social media. When you have players like China and Russia purposely block and disrupt the free flow of information, it is inevitable.

That's going to be really good for blockchain. There's social networks incoming based on decentralised networks like Ethereum, Cardano and Polkadot that cannot be censored.

Hopefully these new social networks will have an unbreakable algorithm that will automatically boot out gullible idiots that have no critical thinking. That's achievable eventually right?

You mean like Bitcoin booting out the FED? Sounds about right to me.

"The United States, the world’s oldest democracy, led the charge in embracing new technologies of empowerment."
the worlds oldest democracy - really

Perhaps he should have refined it by saying the worlds oldest "functioning" democracy. But generally speaking he's correct.
https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/08/countries-are-the-worlds-oldest-d...

"The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk."

"Alexander Hamilton derided ‘pure democracy.’ At the Constitutional Convention he declared: ’All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born, the other the mass of the people. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government.’

James Madison, ‘father’ of the Constitution, wrote in The Federalist Papers 10: ‘Democracies have ever been … incompatible with … the rights of property…[because they threaten] the unequal distribution of property.’"

https://countercurrents.org/2020/09/time-for-a-new-revolution/

Agree that it's not the Internet or any app that runs on it, but the users. Particularly those users from the hoi polloi. They will have to have their speech regulated by their betters. But then this kind of paternalism has arisen with most technological developments that democratise powers that were once in the hands of a powerful few.