Political and Economic Tradeoffs: Understanding the Dictator’s “Digital Dilemma”

By Jaclyn A. Kerr - 25 May 2023
Political and Economic Tradeoffs: Understanding the Dictator’s “Digital Dilemma”

Jaclyn A. Kerr provides the eighth chapter to Global Policy's e-book on 'Digital Repression: Causes, Consequences and Policy Responses'. The e-book's chapters will be serialised on Global Policy over the course of 2023. Please find the other chapters here.

As the Internet and digital information and communication technologies (ICTs) have spread globally, governments around the world have struggled to understand the transformative impacts of these technologies and determine how best to govern them.  This challenge has been particularly acute for nondemocratic states where availability of the new technologies offered citizens new mechanisms for free expression, association, information sharing, and protest mobilization.  Left unrestricted, these new tools and civic spaces could contribute to political instability, risking the downfall of the ruling regime.  But rulers have also had to consider potential economic and political costs of restrictions. 

The concept of a “Digital Dictator’s Dilemma” first surfaced in the late 2000s and early 2010s in analyses seeking to make sense of these tradeoffs (Drezner 2010; Zuckerman 2008).  Models suggested that “dictators” select optimal restriction levels to maintain an equilibrium of control within the new technological environment.  The concept featured in debates between web-idealists and cyber-realists, supporting arguments for why the Internet’s long-term impact on society would likely bend more towards liberation and democratization or control and repression (Diamond 2010; Shirky 2011; Morozov 2011).  Researchers used it to examine why policy responses differed across nondemocratic states, explaining variation between more and less repressive approaches.  While dictator’s dilemma models constitute a significant simplification of complex, globally interdependent and sometimes-decentralized processes, these approaches – properly-caveated – can be useful tools for better understanding the history and ongoing development of digital authoritarianism.

The Expanding Internet and Governance Tradeoffs

Early discussions of a “digital dilemma” for governments took place in a period of high-visibility mass protest mobilizations in which the Internet, mobile phones, and social media were perceived as playing prominent roles.  These included Iran’s Green Movement, the Arab Spring, Russia’s Bolotnaya Protests, and even unusual protest and social unrest events in established democracies such as the London Riots and Occupy Wall Street movement.  The global spread of digital technologies and infrastructure were widely discussed as empowering movements for liberalization, reform, and democratization.  But their potential abuses to reinforce state control and enable new forms of repression were also coming into focus with research detailing digital censorship, surveillance, and manipulation of the information environment (MacKinnon 2010).  While debate raged over whether the new technologies would ultimately serve a purpose more of “liberation” or “control,” it became increasingly clear that how governments decided to restrict or utilize the technologies would play a role in determining these outcomes.

By the early 2010s, there was already noteworthy variation between approaches.  Research on Internet restrictions in different countries demonstrated a wide variety of legal, extra-legal, and technical approaches by which governments – and authoritarian regimes in particular – sought to control the network within their territories.  While some of the most closed authoritarian regimes (e.g. North Korea) had attempted to completely isolate their citizens from the global Internet, others had implemented strict filtering and blocking regimes aimed to prevent their citizens from accessing content concerning sensitive political or social issues and in some cases blocking their use of internationally popular social media sites (e.g. China, Saudi Arabia).  Other countries had employed a variety of different approaches – some of them less obvious – to control content or access to particular materials at specific moments (e.g. Russia).  Regimes employed a wide range of control tactics, including: cutting off or throttling access at key moments, limiting use through high costs, weaponizing draconian laws and prosecutions, pressure on or takeovers of private sector companies, pervasive as well as targeted forms of surveillance, and covert production or manipulation of content (Deibert et al 2010).  

Digital dictator’s dilemma models and comparative research across cases made sense of this variance explaining factors that prompted states to adopt more or less repressive approaches to the Internet or could influence selection of particular control approaches.  Regime type was one obvious explanation.  There was good reason to expect a regime's approach to the Internet to resemble its prior policies in regulation of offline civic freedoms such as freedom of expression, media, association, and protest.  Nondemocratic regimes were overall more inclined to censor and repress Internet use.  Thus, China's “Great Firewall” emerged as an exemplar of a system to censor Internet content in order to prevent protest mobilization and maintain social stability (King, Pan, and Roberts 2013).  Yet many nondemocratic states did not censor the Internet or did so less robustly than they did other media forms leading sometimes to surprisingly asymmetric online-offline policy gaps.  Economic, political, and technical factors helped explain these asymmetries and the different approaches taken by states of relatively similar regime types.  These factors also clarify how digital policy dynamics have changed over time.

Rising Authoritarianism and the Spread of Digital Illiberalism

The last decade has seen significant decline in digital freedom globally.  This has involved both intensification and wider uptake of digital illiberal practices.  Some of these developments can be explained by changes in the digital governance dilemmas confronted by nondemocratic regimes.  Taking off in the post-Cold War period of globalization, the Internet and ICT sector’s global expansion was seen in most countries as critical to economic growth and development.  Even among nondemocratic states, many governments focused first on the opportunities associated with building a vibrant digital ecosystem and avoided restrictions that would hamper this development or frighten off investment.  This coincided with the global expansion of hybrid and competitive authoritarian regime forms many of which maintained power partly through public support, relying on perceptions of economic performance and facades of democracy more than extreme forms of coercion and repression.  Such regimes utilized “low intensity coercion” and targeted repression, but abstained from overt and widespread violations of democratic norms in order to benefit from global economic integration and avoid consequential reputation costs at home and abroad (Levitsky and Way 2010).  In digital governance this sometimes took the form of subtle, covert, and plausibly deniable “next generation” manipulations of the information environment in lieu of systemic censorship (Deibert et al 2010). 

This balance became more challenging though as Internet penetration grew and, with it, the perceived role of ICTs in mass protest mobilizations.  Following the prominent protest movements of the early 2010s, threat perceptions around the role of the Internet hardened in many nondemocratic countries.  What once had been seen as a source of growth and performance legitimacy became viewed as a threat to regime stability and survival.  In 2014, for example, Russian President Vladimir Putin famously referred to the Internet as a “CIA project” – a rapid about-face from Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential Twitter account and touring of Silicon Valley (Clark 2010; MacAskill 2014).  Though governments seeking to rein in the role of ICTs had sometimes been constrained by lack of technical know-how, low state capacity, or public opinion blow-back, the 2010s saw a period of significant authoritarian learning and the increasing availability of affordable censorship and surveillance systems through global markets.  The normative environment regarding appropriate democratic approaches to Internet freedom simultaneously became more fragmented and contentious, lessening the costs of noncompliance.  Diffusion dynamics across states of similar regime types demonstrated that digital policy outcomes were no longer isolated choices of particular regimes but increasingly also involved elements of legal or technical emulation, collaboration, or transfer (Kerr 2018).

A rapidly changing geopolitical and technological environment over the last decade has further complicated the digital dilemmas faced by governments, shaping the ongoing evolution of digital illiberalism as well as debates within and across democracies.  The rise of interstate cyber and information conflict and increasing technological competition has shifted common understandings of the Internet and cyberspace from a primarily positive sum arena to a nexus of great power competition and security vulnerability.  This has coincided with growing consideration of risks as well as benefits associated with interdependence and globalization, manifest in the digital realm in calls for “data localization,” “digital sovereignty,” or “decoupling”  (Drezner, Farrell, and Newman 2021; Kerr 2022).  The changing natures of the technologies themselves, furthermore, alter what uses are being governed and what mechanisms of control or repression are possible.  We see this, for example, in debates about the civil liberties and security repercussions of smart cities and the Internet of Things, privacy and equity concerns around big data and facial recognition, as well as in discussion of novel proliferation threats or ethical concerns related to data-centric fields of AI, additive manufacturing or synthetic biology (Bajema 2018; DeNardis 2020; Horowitz et al 2018; Wright 2019).  Considerations about appropriate democratic governance of social media and online speech in the face of growing concerns around disinformation and extremism highlight the potential for emerging digital technologies to unsettle existing governance arrangements. 

Conclusion: Implications and Policy Consideration

The global spread of the Internet and digital information technologies is an ongoing historic transformation with far-reaching repercussions for the future of government and society.  Initially destabilizing to some prior systems of government, growing Internet and ICT use has engendered various adaptive responses and consequent further differentiation and evolution of political regime types.  Part of this adaptive process has amounted to closing online-offline policy asymmetries as governments learn how to implement similar online measures to their preexisting offline tendencies – whether authoritarian, democratic, or of some hybrid regime form.  But as digital technologies become more pervasive in society, regulating their use becomes less about a separate governance sphere and more about overarching regime approaches to control or repression.  The technology becomes a forcing device towards the establishment of new governance equilibria.  Allowing different new affordances for both states and civil society actors, it engenders and facilitates innovation on both parts, whether to maintain or challenge existing forms of governance and control.

The conceptualization of a “digital dictator’s dilemma” as a model for understanding these processes and making sense of the spread of illiberal digital governance practices is of renewed relevance today in light of the increasing extremity and spread of digital repression.  The conceptualization of digital policy outcomes in states as resulting primarily from separate, deliberate, centralized, unitary, and rational decision processes can risk being overly reductionist.  It can miss the roles of more decentralized or path-dependent processes, complex interdependencies across states, or nuanced variations in forms of digital control and their implementation.  But such models can also be a critical piece in understanding conflicting pressures shaping policy options, particularly in nondemocratic settings where researchers have limited insight into precise political processes.  They can counter tendencies to see digital policy in black-and-white terms of democratic versus authoritarian binaries.  By helping clarify forces influencing policy outcomes in nondemocratic contexts, they can also serve as a tool for developing better foreign policy interventions to limit the spread and extremity of digital illiberalism.



Dr. Jaclyn A. Kerr is Senior Research Fellow for Defense and Technology Futures at the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.  She is also a Nonresident Fellow with the Brookings Institution, an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, and an affiliate with the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.  Her research focuses on digital and emerging technologies and their current and future impacts on international politics, national security, and democracy.  Dr. Kerr has conducted overseas research on digital activism and illiberalism in the former Soviet region.  She has held fellowships at the US Department of State, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Harvard and Stanford Universities.  She also has worked as a software engineer.  Dr. Kerr holds a PhD and MA in Government from Georgetown University, and an MA in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and BAs in Mathematics and Slavic Languages and Literatures from Stanford University. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the US government.

Photo by Lokman Sevim




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