Report: Emerging Tech Has Become a Tool for Government Censorship

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Part one of a two-part report from the International Trade Commission outlines the adverse impact emerging technologies and censorship policies have on U.S.foreign trade. 

The U.S. International Trade Commission released a report Thursday, which found that some foreign governments employ technology like data localization rules to coerce compliance with censorship policies, and that emerging technologies, namely artificial intelligence, are used to monitor and subsequently suppress online activity. This in turn affects foreign market participation within these countries. 

“The advance of technology has not only provided more outlets for speech, but also created more technical levers to suppress speech,” the report said.

“Governments are using multiple levers—from data and personnel localization requirements to threats of retaliation—to pressure compliance with censorship policies,” the USITC continued. “Technological developments, such as the growing reliance on artificial intelligence by governments and internet companies to identify and suppress large quantities of online content, also present substantial challenges.”

Authored at the request of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee back in April 2021, the first of two reports reviewed the censorship tactics and corresponding policies in several critical foreign markets. 

“As digital services have continued to grow in importance in the global economy, several countries have introduced new policies and practices governing online communication and the flow of information across the internet,” the report begins. “The consequences of censorship-related policies and practices can be significant for U.S. firms, especially U.S.-based content producers and digital services firms, as they may restrict trade, impede market access, increase operational costs and reputational risks, or discourage foreign direct investment.”

Some of the laws pertinent to digital censorship efforts include data localization restrictions, internet intermediary rules, and prohibitions of foreign market participation. The content often blocked in these countries includes political, social, and security information, along with internet tools. 

China’s policies of blocking websites and filtering out keywords to limit accessible online content, came under scrutiny in the report. The content regulation, introduced by policy and technology, is collectively known as China’s “Great Firewall.”

Mobile applications, media and other information websites are impacted by China’s censorship. 

U.S. lawmakers, most recently Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, both of whom serve on the Senate Finance Committee, criticized China’s anti-competitive policies and free speech limitations. 

“It is no accident that the same laws that crush free speech in China also prevent American media and technology firms from competing fairly in the most populous country on earth,”  Wyden said in a press release. “The Chinese regime builds its Great Firewall higher every year, suppressing political dissent, protecting the ruling party, and enabling a human rights disaster. And this repressive model is spreading. If the United States wants to compete in the economy of the future and ensure a free and open internet for people around the world, our government needs to get serious about fighting back against authoritarian censorship.”

The report also noted Russia’s usage of deep packet inspection software to assist in blocking certain content from being accessed by civilians as well as surveillance––a common practice within some of the countries researched in the report. 

The companion report, which will focus more on the quantitative results of censorship and its relation to global trade, is expected around July 5, 2022.