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Repression in the Digital Age: Surveillance, Censorship, and the Dynamics of State Violence

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Dr. Anita Gohdes, Professor of International and Cyber Security at the Hertie School, Berlin




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Global adoption of the Internet has exploded, yet we are only beginning to understand the Internet's profound political consequences. Authoritarian states are digitally catching up with their democratic counterparts, and both are showing a growing interest in the use of cyber controls--online censorship and surveillance technologies--that allow governments to exercise control over the Internet. Under what conditions does a digitally connected society actually help states target their enemies? Why do repressive governments sometimes shut down the Internet when faced with uprisings? And how have cyber controls become a dependable tool in the weapons arsenal that states use in civil conflict?

In Repression in the Digital Age, Anita R. Gohdes addresses these questions, and provides an original and in-depth look into the relationship between digital technologies and state violence. Drawing on large-scale analyses of fine-grained data on the Syrian conflict, qualitative case evidence from Iran, and the first global comparative analysis on Internet outages and state repression, Gohdes makes the case that digital infrastructure supports security forces in their use of violent state repression. More specifically, she argues that mass access to the Internet presents governments who fear for their political survival with a set of response options. When faced with a political threat, they can either temporarily restrict or block online public access or they can expand mass access to online information and monitor it to their own advantage. Surveillance allows security forces to target opponents of the state more selectively, while extreme forms of censorship or shutdowns of the Internet occur in conjunction with larger and more indiscriminate repression. As digital communication has become a bedrock of modern opposition and protest movements, Repression in the Digital Age breaks new ground in examining state repression in the information age.



Order Repression in the Digital Age: Surveillance, Cencorship, and the Dynamics of State Violence from Oxford University Press



Dr. Anita Gohdes is Professor of International and Cyber Security at the Hertie School. Her research focuses on contentious politics in the cyber realm, with a current emphasis on large-scale quantitative analyses of state behaviour. Previously, she was Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Zurich, and postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center International Security Program. Since 2009, she has worked for the California-based non-profit organisation Human Rights Data Analysis Group. She currently advises the German Federal Foreign Office, and has consulted for the World Bank and the United Nations on security and state fragility. Her doctoral dissertation (University of Mannheim) was awarded the German Dissertation Award in the Social Sciences by the Körber Foundation, and the Walter Isard Dissertation Award by the Peace Science Society. Anita Gohdes is part of the Centre for International Security's research team.



Leslie Johns is a professor of political science and law at UCLA. She is also Associate Director of the Burkle Center for International Relations. Her research focuses on international law, organizations, and political economy. In 2022, Cambridge University Press published her newest book, Politics and International Law: Making, Breaking, and Upholding Global Rules. You can access related news stories on the book's Twitter account: @PoliticsIntlLaw. Her work appears in the American Political Science Review, International Organization, Journal of Conflict Resolution and the Journal of Politics. Her first book–Strengthening International Courts: The Hidden Costs of Legalization–was published in 2015 by the University of Michigan Press. She received the Michael Wallerstein Award for political economy in 2017. She is a former term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a former research fellow at the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance at Princeton University (2012-2013 and 2021-2022).


This event is sponsored by the Burkle Center for International Relations and co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science, The UCLA Promise Institute for Human Rights, and the Institute for Technology, Law and Policy at UCLA Law.

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Leslie Johns 0:07

Hello, everyone, and welcome to today's Burkle book talk. Before we get started, I have a few quick announcements. First of all, we'll be making audio and video recordings of today's talks that you can access later on YouTube or as podcasts through various podcasts providers. However, the audience members cannot be seen or heard. So we will be respecting your privacy. We do encourage audience members to please submit their questions for the speaker. You can submit your questions by using the Q&A button which is at the bottom of your screen. And please, when typing out your questions, please be brief and clear so that I can read them and understand them quickly. So today, we're delighted to have as our guest speaker and Anita Gohdes. Anita is a professor of International and Cybersecurity at the Hertie School in Berlin, Germany. She has previously held appointments at the University of Zurich as well as at Harvard University. She gained her PhD from the University of Mannheim. And in addition to being a very accomplished academic and author, she also serves as a field consultant for the Human Rights Data Analysis Group. Today, we're very excited to have her presenting material from her first book, which is called, "Repression in the Digital Age, Cyber Controls and State Violence and the 21st Century." So with that, I'm happy to welcome Dr. Anita Gohdes. Anita, please come join me. All right, I'm gonna go ahead and turn things over to you so that you can present your really exciting research to our audience today.

Anita Gohdes 2:02

Thank you so much, Leslie, thank you so much for having me. It's a delight and an honor to be here, and I'm really excited to be presenting my book work; the culmination of now more than a decade of work on repression in the digital age. I'll just take the next 20 minutes or so to present some of the key findings to you, and I'm really excited to hear your questions and comments and suggestions for future work. And if you want to get in touch to talk about this more, feel free to send me an email, I'm always happy to hear about your work, especially if you're a grad student. So I'll start off now, and what I like to start out with here is kind of a motivating slides to kind of orient us where this all started out. What you can see here are the average share of individuals who use the internet and the graph starts in 1990, and goes all the way through to 2017. And this is really a time period where we see a lot of movement in terms of how many people are actually able to access the internet. Now what I did here was actually disaggregate those numbers by what we might call regime type or by political institutions in the country. And you can quite clearly see that up until about the mid 2000s-2010s, the majority of people who will online we're living in liberal democracies, and then from the mid 2000s onwards, especially kind of exploding after 2010, we see that other countries are catching up. So we see a real exponential increase in the number or the proportion of people who are able to access the internet in electoral autocracies, closed autocracies, electoral democracies, this is the the VDM categorization. But you know, regardless of which one we look at, we really see that there's a kind of catching up effect. And if you remember, if you kind of go back in your head 10-15 years ago, there was a real strong sense that the Internet would help with democratic processes, would help marginalize voices mobilize and ultimately we'd see a positive effect on society. Now that has changed a little bit, but this is kind of the - some of the the kind of rhetoric and discourse that we had around the introduction and the expansion explosion, frankly, of the internet. Now, the thing that interested me in this project was looking at these looking at these kinds of developments over time, what is actually going on there? And how can we explain that countries that aren't really interested in democratizing might be kind of getting more and more people online. And one of the things I kept coming back to was the fact that governments are ultimately the ones who still remain, or over this time period really, remained in control of digital infrastructure. And this picture I show you here is now almost 10 years old. It's from the umbrella protests in Hong Kong in September 2014. And since it's kind of difficult to show in a picture what the internet looks like, I think this is a really nice representation of what it means when citizens are mobilizing against government policies or the government per se, but they're still dependent on some of the infrastructure that's been provided by the country, by the state, to actually be able to mobilize. Here we see electricity, but of course, the same goes for the internet. And one of the things that's been going on in this time period is that online surveillance and censorship technology has proliferated, and it's particularly proliferated in repressive countries. The thing that I was interested in was knowing what do these new what we might call cyber controls actually do? How do they play into states broader repressive strategies? And so what I tried to do in this book was bring some new theoretical ideas, of course, building on a lot of research on the role of information in autocratic regimes in repression. But to think how those types of questions can be answered with some new theory, and then a lot of evidence, quantitative evidence from different types of contexts, to look at how cyber controls actually affect traditional forms of repression. Now, I'm talking about cyber controls. It's a big lofty word, let's kind of break down what I mean by them. I'm specifically looking at two types of cyber controls here. One are things that we might call online surveillance, it includes mass surveillance, but it also includes targeted surveillance, so intercepting people's phones, monitoring what they do online, monitoring the communication, but also monitoring their metadata. And then at the other extreme, we have online censorship. So the restriction, the blocking of access and of information, but throttling, and ultimately we see full shutdowns of the internet also being kind of a most extreme form of censorship. And so I'm really looking at what happens when when states incorporate surveillance and censorship into their repressive responses to political threats that they face. The way that I think about it very quickly speaking, theoretically, is that we should see some kind of relationship between online and offline responses to political threats. Now, when governments up to focus on online surveillance, so extracting information about what people write online, what where people are online who are in their phone books, for example, one of the prerequisites to be able to do that is actually to provide people internet access, right. So when we kind of see an expansion of internet accessibility, with it also comes an expansion of new forms of being able to gather information of what's happening online. Now, theoretically, what we might expect is that an increase in online surveillance and increase online accessibility can provide new actionable intelligence that can actually enable more targeted forms of violence, right. So violence that is aimed at specific individuals, specific groups based on something that they've done, or potentially specific identities that they have. At the other extreme, we have online censorship. Now online censorship limits access to intelligence. When you shut down your ability to collect information, you're actually limiting the the quality of information that you have. But it actually can help restrict communication for opposition groups, for protest movements, for ethnic minorities that might be trying to mobilize against the repressive regime that can hinder collective organization, can deplete opposition capabilities, because we now know especially that social media is really important to also recruit people online to gain financial independence, and so on. And ultimately, I expect that where governments engage in more extreme forms of censorship, we're more likely to see indiscriminate repression. The reason why I think it's really important to study this is because we've seen that some of the policy responses towards how to, for example, deal with hate speech online, and how to deal with some of the negative repercussions of people mobilizing online, should be, you know, limiting access to the internet. And what I theoretically expect, and that's ultimately also what I test in the book, is that we should see that censorship doesn't actually help with those things, but actually is a facilitator for more violence. So that's something I'm trying to empirically assess here as well.

Now, in the book, I tried to present data and evidence from different types of contexts, using different types of data, different levels of aggregation. Most of the analyses that I present are quantitative, but I also include some qualitative evidence to get at some of the nuances of how internet shutdowns might affect repression. I have a number of studies that focus on cyber controls and repression in Syria. Why Syria? Syria was one of the first we might call them socially mediated conflicts. So social media was a central component to mobilization of the opposition, but also very, very quickly became a key form of control for the Syrian regime and associated pro government groups. And so one of the things I studied there is the role of nationwide internet shutdowns. And the way they were used in conjunction with mass repression. And then I also look at regional Internet accessibility, to understand how the opportunities online surveillance affect the ability to engage in targeted forms of violence. Then I look at the dynamics of repression during one specific internet shutdown in Iran. And here, I actually worked with the Amnesty Iran team and the Amnesty tech team to kind of bring the number one benefit of their incredible work, and try and understand together with them, what the role of the shutdown actually was, in the, in the government crackdown against the protest. To kind of get some, as we might call it, external validity, to kind of understand if this also plays out when we do look at it in the global comparative way, I collected new data on internet shutdowns cross-nationally to look at how those correlate with state repression more broadly. And I'll give you just a very brief kind of run through of those of those results. But I'm happy to talk about more of them, and also the data and the difficulties and so on in the in the Q&A. Now, in Syria, again, as I said, the Syrian case is an interesting one for us, because the the level of control that the Syrian government has over internet infrastructure there, and especially at the beginning of the conflict is, is very, very high. And so it's quite easy for us to infer that when internet shutdowns occur, the government is, is behind them. And we have a lot of evidence from, from very, very courageous members of civil society in Syria, who collected evidence of spyware being used, off the shelf spyware being used, but also kind of home built or coded by were being used. And so we have quite strong evidence that when the internet was shut– wasn't shut down, when it was available, that the government was engaging in all different types of surveillance. So what I do here is I collected new data, this was together with the Human Rights Data Analysis Group. And I analyzed about 60,000 killings that were associated with the Syrian regime and associated pro government groups. In order to understand how different levels of internet accessibility, ultimately are associated with different types of killings that we that we see. I use supervised text analysis here to determine the circumstances of killing so that we can actually distinguish what the reason was that someone was being killed, which is something that's actually quite unusual, in that we're able to do it at at that level of granularity. What you can see here on the graph, just as kind of an overview is that the level of internet accessibility varied very strongly across the time period that I studied. So we have a lot of variation here, in the degree to which people were able to access the internet. The first big result here is that online surveillance, so the availability of online internet, goes hand in hand is strongly associated with an increase in targeted violence. And because I also collect data on armed group presents, I'm able to look at other types of covariates that might influence the degree to which people are able to, to access or the pro government groups were able to access information. And so the second big result here is that we find a more pronounced effect where traditional forms of information gathering are not available or less effective. So to put it to put it very, very frankly, where is online surveillance useful? For a government, it is where they usually don't have access to the internet, because they don't have troops on the ground, because they don't have co ethnics that are loyal towards them. And so this is where, where, where the information provided by online surveillance kind of adds something new qualitatively speaking. Now, if we briefly look at the Iranian case here, I was interested in the nationwide shutdown and how that affected mass repression. I'll just jog your memory what happened in November 2019. On the 14th of November, we had a 200% increase in the price of petrol, which sparked widespread protests across Iran. And then within less than 48 hours, the regime engaged in a full shutdown of the worldwide web. Now importantly, here, what that meant was that the country was shut off from the outside web. The national so called intranet still remained intact. But you can see here on the on the graph that ultimately it was very, very difficult to get any information outside of the country once the full shutdown occurred. And what we were able to document is that the shutdown coincided and was timed with mass repression by the security and paramilitary forces, and extreme violence that indicated a shoot to kill strategy. 1000s were arrested and detained, and the shift in the, the repressive strategy was not just quantitative. It was also qualitative, we saw a move towards silencing relatives and friends of victims, pressuring them not to draw attention. At the same time, state media engaged in very, very strong propaganda campaigns against the protesters. We saw confiscation of mobile devices so that when people had, for example, filmed, repression occurring at protests, they weren't able to share it online. But they also couldn't share it afterwards, because their mobile phones were confiscated. And many experts estimated that there was about a 24 hour time lag in international reporting. And what you can see at the bottom here was the number of videos at an hourly level that were collected by the network of people in Iran who were working together with the Amnesty team. And you can see that the, just the quantity of information that left the country also, also, once the Internet came back on was just qualitatively much less. So we find not just a quantitative but also qualitative change in the type of repression that coincides with internet shutdowns. Now, what's interesting in the Iranian case, and I'll just say this, because it there's some, I think there's some really important follow up work that can be done here is, what happens when the internet comes back down. We know that circumvention tools are very, very popular in Iran. And if we look here, just at the daily users who use Tor, which is censorship evasion software, but also a software that allows people to browse the internet anonymously. And we see that there's an increase in the number of Tor users in the aftermath of the shutdown. And so this is an indication that shutdowns can actually trigger an increased incentive within populations to evade censorship. And that is something of course, even if the actual shutdown is quote unquote successful in repressing the protest, the long term effects can can be negative for the regime. Now briefly, just say something about the global analysis, because it's interesting to look at this from from a kind of global perspective as well. Here, I collected new data. And I'm really, so delighted that there is now the Internet Outage Detection Analysis project by, by CAIDA. And they've been collecting incredible data on network measurements that allow us to actually have a network-based data on internet shutdowns. What you can see here is roughly what they're, what the interface looks like to actually detect these outages. So there are three different measures to kind of, that trace network activity. And you can see here, for the internet outage in Gabon in 2019, what a shutdown would look like. So that actually allows us to detect these shutdowns forensically speaking. What I, what I find here when I compare just cross nationally speaking, internet shutdowns over a time period of three years, is that countries that implement intense shutdowns are significantly more likely to engage in more extreme violent forms of repression than other countries, when controlling for all of the kinds of most important indicators that we know that effect political repression. So this idea that shutdown somehow help quell violence is something that we just have no support for, either at the global level, nor at the individual country level.

So some of the key takeaways here for me: I think cyber controls, we can say, have transformed traditional forms of surveillance and censorship. In the book, I talk a lot about how online surveillance and online censorship differ from traditional forms of surveillance and censorship, with all of the kinds of positives and negatives that come with it. And importantly, they don't act as a replacement or a substitution of violent repression, something that is oftentimes kind of being thrown around in policy circles. This idea of well, you know, if governments are now mostly focusing on the online sphere, then maybe we might see less, quote unquote, bad things happening offline. And I find very little evidence for that. In fact, most of the countries that engage in or have for a long time engaged in violence repression will include different forms of cyber controls in their broader repressive strategies. And so these cyber controls become a supportive part, not a substitute for, for state repression. I think if we think about this from a kind of broad question of who does this help, who doesn't that help? My overall takeaway after studying this now for the last 10 years or so, is that at the moment that the technology is tipping the balance of power in favor of repressive regimes, because it provides ways to access previously hard to reach sectors of society. And so, because digital infrastructure is so, so important and so relevant, and oftentimes remains largely in the control of state actors, it can have this really detrimental effect to social movements, civil society, actors, journalists, minorities, sexual minorities, as well, in a whole host of different societies. I think the broader implications are very clear when it comes to digital infrastructure. Having access to the internet is not neutral. So when we think about the expansion of digital infrastructure, when we think about who gets to build infrastructure, and who provides infrastructure, these are things that are highly political, and that we should be thinking about from a political perspective as well. The implications are, of course, clear for international trade, I'm based in the European Union, the EU has talked a lot about this. But ultimately, there's still a lot to be done in terms of thinking about exporting spyware, other types of interception software. And then we have to think about how this affects activists, human rights defenders in the ways that they can actually exercise their civil rights. So I think there are a lot of implications here, and I'd be happy to talk to you more about them in the Q&A. And with that, thank you very much. I look forward to questions.

Leslie Johns 21:31

Okay, thank you so much, very stimulating presentation to go along with very stimulating book. So as a reminder, to everyone in the audience, please feel free to submit your questions for Anita using the Q&A button at the bottom of your screen. Before I dive into the audience Q&A, though, I do get to ask a couple questions of my own. So, I wanted to start with a question that I oftentimes get from graduate students, which is like, how did you come up with this topic? Because I think that this is a great example of a topic Anita, in the sense that it really taps into an important issue in the world, it's novel, but I think it also taps into like big political science questions, right? Which is about like, the role of the state, the role of violence, human rights, it taps into so many different important conceptual questions. So how did this come to you as a young researcher, can you tell us a little bit about that?

Anita Gohdes 22:38

Yeah, absolutely. First of all, biggest thank you to my advisor, who allowed me to switch my topic three times during my PhD.

Leslie Johns 22:46

Really? Wow. that's for people to know, like, you don't always, you know, hit it out of the ballpark on your first time. Right.

Anita Gohdes 22:54

Exactly, yeah. So so she was very patient with me. And, and let me switch my topic, which was, which was great. I was originally working on the the dynamics of what the, you know, the, the, the kind of dynamics of violence and civil war, civilian victimization. And it was actually my work with the Human Rights Data Analysis Group that alerted me to the role that the internet was playing for documentation groups. So what I didn't talk about much in the in the presentation, but I talk about in the book is that all of the data that I use in the analysis on, on state repression in Syria, is collected by incredible human rights documentation groups, based in Syria. And so we started working with these groups with Human Rights Data Analysis Group back in 2012. And this was work that was commissioned by the UN Human Rights Office. And so we were in contact with these documentation groups, and they were telling us, you know, we can, you know, they were providing us with extremely high quality data on what was happening. And the reason why they were able to do that was because they had Skype, at the time, if you still remember Skype. Skype was, you know, back in 2012 Yeah. And so these, you know, these, these colleagues that we work with, were telling us, you know, we have a couple of 1000 Skype contacts and our Skype lists, and they provide us with the newest information, including pictures and real details and videos, you know, to make sure that these aren't just fabricated incidences. But then the internet will will go off, right, like, the government will shut down the internet. And, and actually, those discussions prompted me to thinking about, you know, the role of digital technology in their work, and then I wanted to know, well, how does it actually affect the repressive strategies of the, of the regime?

Leslie Johns 24:48

Yeah, so it was kind of solving a practical problem, right, which is that like the, the information that was coming through was coming through selectively, right.

Anita Gohdes 24:57

Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Leslie Johns 24:59

So you know, the image that I had in mind, as I was reading the book was, you know, I was thinking about, like, you had this big bully with a baseball bat, which, like the government, and like, it could decide when to turn off the lights, right. And like when when it turned off the lights, you couldn't see what was going on. Right? That was kind of like what I was thinking about. And so as I was reading the book, I then started thinking about, well, you know, sometimes, you know, as you were talking about, in these specific cases, right, the government can turn off the internet, but like in a lot of, in some other conflicts, like in Myanmar, and like, for thinking about, like the Ukraine war, like, we know that private companies like Starlink, or like Facebook in Myamar, have played a really big role in terms of transmitting information. And I remember there was an article about Elon Musk talking about how Ukraine was trying to send, was it like a missile or something into Crimea? And he turned off Starlink, because he didn't want the missile to hit Crimea, because he was like, Oh, that's not fair that the missile was going to hit Crimea, I forget the exact details of the story. And so I guess, I was wondering, this is outside of the context of the book, obviously. But like, what if it's not the government flipping the switch? Right? What if it's Elon Musk, or some private business person? And, you know, how do you think that would sort of tease out your story, if it's private businesses or industries that are deciding when that's, when the switch gets flipped? thought a little bit about that?

Anita Gohdes 26:42

Yeah, definitely. And I think, I think it really gets to this question of what we understand infrastructure to be and I learned a lot reading the kind of, you know, political, like mainstream political science, literature on state capacity, right, like, what does that mean? And, and I think we really have to think about Facebook, in Myanmar, or Starlink to a certain extent, but certainly things like Google and and social media companies more broadly as infrastructure, right. So when you have, you know, survey after survey showing that certain countries equate Facebook with the internet, that makes Facebook infrastructure, right, and so when you shut down that infrastructure, you're shutting down the internet. And so I think, I think the, the incentives are different to a certain extent. And for a long time, we kind of had the mantra, or, you know, the, the broad kind of understanding that especially Western companies would be interested in kind of maintaining an open internet and, you know, adhering to certain values and so on. And, and in the last couple of years, we've really seen a move away from that. And part of that has to do with the fact that these companies have become more powerful than the the governments that they are, you know, dealing with. So I think I think we really have to theorize about, you know, I think there's a lot of a lot of PhD theses to be written about, you know, that the role of these these social media companies as infrastructure, as states as quasi-states.

Leslie Johns 28:12

Yeah. I mean, there's certainly been a ton of effort, like trying to make sure that Starlink doesn't provide internet to Gaza, right, for example, because otherwise that's going to interfere with military operations, by the, by the IDF. One last thing I just have to ask you about, and feel free to just say, I don't know, but, you know, here in the US, we obviously have an election coming up. On the news today. I don't know if you know about this, but all of the leaders of the main social media companies like TikTok, Facebook, or I guess it's Meto now, it's not Facebook anymore. You know, they're all lined up before Congress, right now. It's on TV, talking about like, you know, their user policies. Now they're being grilled about children, but obviously, you know, there's a big fear about are they going to be used to spread misinformation. And your book, obviously, is really focused about repression and autocracies, but I was wondering if, if you had thought at all about sort of the implications of your argument for democracies, right, and the way misinformation spreads within democracies?

Anita Gohdes 29:27

Yeah, you know, I think, I know, quite clearly kind of where the limits of my knowledge are on that. So I'll try and kind of stay within the realm of

Leslie Johns 29:38

Yeah, I don't want to like, push you to go too far off.

Anita Gohdes 29:41

But I think it's such an important question. And you know, my first, my first sense, especially, coming from a semester, where I taught students from across the world is, in a sense, it's such a privilege that these companies are sitting down and talking to policymakers in the US because it's the only country where you know, this type of effort is being made to counter disinformation in the context of elections. When I think about, you know, two dozen other countries that have elections right now, where, you know, there's very little interest in in preventing misinformation. So I think that's, you know, that's a good sign, even if it's happening in the context of child protection, which I'm not sure doesn't seem like the right context me, but

Leslie Johns 30:24

They're worried about child trafficking stuff like that. Right. But it's not about misinformation today, but Congress is definitely worried about misinformation. Yeah

Anita Gohdes 30:33

Yeah, but I think, I think it's also really important that it's happening in the context of the US because it's, you know, for all of us, it's such an important election, but what's going to come out beyond the US and, and again, if we think about, you know, TikTok being the infrastructure that, you know, most teams engage with the internet with, if certain things happen there, when certain things are controlled, or not shown, then that's ultimately, you know, infecting the entire information environment that they interact with. So I yeah, I'm also equally worried about those

Leslie Johns 31:08

Well, we will try not to ruin the world, in the nexy, you know, six months or whatever, I make no guarantees. So, you know, you know, Germany will have to come fix everything for us. So I'm gonna turn to the Q&A from the audience. Now. My apologies for those in the audience. So I'm just going to kind of try to go through and try to interpret the questions as best I can. How can we emphasize the importance of a free and open internet to our representatives in the USA? I don't know. Do you have any thoughts on that? Or do you agree with the premise of the question? Do you think open Internet is the most important things? Or do you think that there are, that there are situations in which the internet should have some controls?

Anita Gohdes 32:04

Yeah, you know, I think I that I'm now showing my age, I, you know, I was very much socialized at a time where we all believed in a free, a free and open Internet, and it's still something I haven't given up yet. I think we really have to be careful, and I'm saying this also from a position of Germany that has been very heavily engaged in, you know, all these types of legislations to deal with, you know, terrible problems that we have on the internet. But I think we have to make sure that we don't assume that more and more control, and more and more kind of filtering is going to necessarily improve our experiences online, and also offer the types of spaces that ultimately civil society needs, investigative journalists need, to be able to kind of keep our society as it is. So I'm still very much a believer in the value of a, of a free and open internet, I have to say,

Leslie Johns 32:59

I don't know that I completely understand the question myself. But maybe that just shows my ignorance. So, what types of governments can engage in this type of repression? So I think this is a question about the scope, perhaps of your theory, are there certain traits of governments that tend to use these strategies?

Anita Gohdes 33:20

When it comes to internet shutdowns, we have some, some really good evidence that shows that the fewer internet service providers they are, and the more internet service providers are controlled by the government or by members of the government, the more likely we are to see internet shutdowns, just because it's easier from a kind of administrative perspective to shut down the internet. So, so absolutely, you know, lack of diversity within the ISP sector is a very strong indicator. When it comes to surveillance, there is of course, this correlation with state capacity. But what might be interesting is that when we look at the countries that engage in very, very kind of detailed surveillance of the populations, it's not necessarily only the ones that have a high percentage of people who are online. So, the kind of example that that I studied quite a lot when I started this work was Ethiopia, that already in 2014, was very strongly engaged in various forms of online surveillance, even though a very small proportion of the country was online. So I'd say the scope is broader than just, you know, the kind of most online countries, but there is, of course, some kind of correlation there with state capacity as well.

Leslie Johns 34:34

What kind of actions are being taken at the international level to prevent this type of repression? Are states acknowledging or sanctioning this behavior when they see it?

Anita Gohdes 34:47

Yes and no. So when I, again, when I started this work, I thought, you know, internet shutdowns are going to be a thing of the past soon because it's so archaic, and you know, it's so kind of antithetical to how we live and then conduct business online. But internet shutdowns are increasing. And they're not only increasing in the kind of most repressive countries, it's oftentimes in these kinds of electoral autocracies or illiberal democracies, and they often times happened in the context of elections. So I think we, you know, we need to do much more at the international level to point out that it's not just lack of access, it's oftentimes comes with more extreme forms of repression. And so there's, there's more to it than just, you know, information shutdowns. When it comes to surveillance, I think they're different things being done. And these these big journalistic reportings, you know, when things like Pegasus I think really helped bring international attention to, to the issues. So that's, I think those are very positive things that are happening.

Leslie Johns 35:49

Seems like one of our audience members knows a little bit about this topic. And they say, What about India? Seems to be a lot of shutdowns there, and how does that fit in with your story about autocracy? Or do you maybe think that India is more of an autocracy, even though we traditionally call it a democracy?

Anita Gohdes 36:06

No, I think these internet shutdowns have been going on in India for a long time. I think - I'm not an expert on India - but if I hear my colleagues talk about it, I think there are some questions about kind of some democratic processes going on there. But I think we've seen these internet shutdowns happen for a long time, and they happen in a very localized way, they oftentimes happen in the context of specific groups in society trying to mobilize or being seen as a threat. And so that's exactly what I mean when I say I'm worried about kind of internet shutdowns just becoming an acceptable way to deal with protests, with unrest across a whole range of countries.

Leslie Johns 36:49

Okay. One of the audience members wrote in asking if you've done any work, looking at censorship of specific subjects, so the audience member is asking about the work of Gary King, focusing on China and how China appears, he's mentioning, I guess there's an article in The New York Times today about how China has been censoring financial news. And how that might have an impact on the economy. But I know, the book is more about just sort of turning the internet on and off, but maybe have you looked at this in other parts of your research portfolio?

Anita Gohdes 37:34

So I've looked at, you know, to what extent specific websites are being shut down? I'm a huge- with specific websites or domains, right, because that's, that's kind of the easiest way to get some of those questions for us. I'm a huge fan of, you know, Molly Roberts's work and co-authors who work on China specifically, and I think there are few countries where we have that level of, just quality of evidence about censorship, but I think there's a lot we can learn from that case.

Leslie Johns 38:05

Okay. And one of the interns at the Burkle Center asks whether artificial intelligence plays a role in surveillance and security operations?

Anita Gohdes 38:18

Yes, and it's increasing hugely. So right now, I think we really need to think about the role of AI helping kind of sift through the vast amounts of data that comes with online surveillance. So one of the quote unquote positives for a lot of people in resistance movements have been that, you know, it's difficult to just deal with that sheer quantity of data. But when you have, you know, various forms of data analytics that help you sift through that, I think that's going to become quite dangerous. Yeah.

Leslie Johns 38:53

Okay. This question, I'm not sure if your book can get it the question, but maybe you can address it more broadly. Do you find governments preferring certain types of cyber controls over others, depending on the different political contexts, like during elections or not versus during protests or not?

Anita Gohdes 39:17

Yes, we've seen that the preferred means of internet shutdowns, especially during elections, have been in certain regions. So oftentimes, it'll be in opposition strongholds, or it'll be in strongholds that have been known to have certain types of unrest. And in general, local shutdowns just get much less press attention. So if you are a government interested in not getting bad press, don't implement a nationwide shutdown. That's just not a good idea. Yeah.

Leslie Johns 39:47

Is there a relationship between state governments and the private sector in large scale surveillance operations? I would think there very probably has to be right like, I would, sorry, I shouldn't answer for you. Yes. Yeah.

Anita Gohdes 40:04

No, I think you're exactly right. That's exactly- No, I think that's exactly what we're seeing. And I think there the question really is, we as a society have to decide how much do we want this to be a sector where we see innovation happening when ultimately that technology is being used against us? Yeah.

Leslie Johns 40:29

Let's see. Sorry, we just have so many questions. I'm like doing my best to get through it. Are there areas where non-state actors are the ones controlling access to the internet? Oh, that's a great one. For example, are there defensive actions or new strategies that groups are using, maybe rebels in Syria, to counter these actions by governments?

Anita Gohdes 40:54

I think that's going to become more and more important. And I mean, if you think about, I mean, clearly, when we think about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this is an interstate war. But in many ways, the response by the Ukrainian government was right,

Leslie Johns 41:09

Right, which is to get Elon Musk to give you an internet. Right. Yeah.

Anita Gohdes 41:13

Exactly, reestablish, kind of. I think there's some evidence in Yemen that within the war there, both sides were trying to kind of establish, you know, who was in charge of the internet. And I think what's interesting, from again kind of a state capacity, state signaling perspective, is that whoever controls the internet also automatically says that they have, you know, legitimate, you know, state kind of responsibility. So, I think there's more than just the information control is also saying, you know, we're the providers here, but we've seen rebel groups really become innovative, some have just reverted to talking with walkie talkies, right? Or building their own networks, mesh networks, or using satellite technology. And I think we're going to see much more of that happen in the future.

Leslie Johns 42:05

It's kind of, not to go off topic, but it is kind of interesting how, like, in the last couple months in terms of thinking about Gaza, right, how insistent, you know, NGOs were about, you know, like we need food, we need water, and we need internet, right. About how it really was sort of treated as like a human right. You know, like, we want cell phones, we want internet, and how it really was taken as sort of like an idea of sort of effective control of territory and how it really has sort of been bundled in as sort of like a basic notion of a right. I guess because it's such an important way for people to keep in touch with each other, right? Or get access to basic information about where to go and how to protect yourself during a war.

Anita Gohdes 42:58

Yeah, and I think what's interesting there is that we oftentimes think about the internet as the primary cause of misinformation. But everything we know about areas where the internet has been shut down, is that those are the areas where rumors just go crazy. Right? So you know, pre-internet, we had a lot of rumors, a lot of misinformation going around. And so actually providing access to the internet for people in war zones, is really important to get, you know, accurate information.

Leslie Johns 43:28

Yeah, because it's not clear that the absence of information is better than, yeah, exactly. Yeah. Okay. So let's see. As you know, we are facing, this appears to be someone who knows you, Andrea or Andrea, as you know, we are facing a populist wave in Europe, also in Germany. We have elections coming up in three East German states. I'd like to ask the what if questions, how would the AFD deal with internet if they would govern? For the audience, could you fill us in: AFD? That's the far right party. Is that right?

Anita Gohdes 44:18

It's the radical right party within Germany, right. So,

Leslie Johns 44:22

Just to fill us in what does radical right mean in Germany?

Anita Gohdes 44:28

So they are the, they are probably, they're not the most right leaning party. There are more right leaning parties.

Leslie Johns 44:34

Are they the ones who want to kick all the migrants out?

Anita Gohdes 44:37


Leslie Johns 44:38

Okay. I think I read an article about that. Okay.

Anita Gohdes 44:42

I think what makes them, and I think why this question is so pertinent, what makes them so so so important right now is that they're not just extremely radical right, extremely racist in their, in their, in their manifesto, that they have such high support. They have a quite high percentage of support within the German population, especially within Eastern Germany. Judging by everything that radical right parties have done in Germany and in other countries, it has been to attack the press. And in other work I do, that's not part of this book, I look at the specifically the targeting of journalists in democracies. And once this norm has been broken, that, you know, are in favor of an independent press. Even if they, you know, report bad things about you, it becomes very, very dangerous to be a journalist. So judging by what this radical right party has done, I would expect them to engage quite heavily in wanting to block access to specific types of domains, specific types of content on social media, and probably reduce the funding of, you know, online media outlets that report critically on them, just judging by what other radical right parties have done, or, you know, in general, more radical parties have engaged with in another countries.

Leslie Johns 45:57

Okay, is this the one that recently had the court ruling where they lost access to state funding?

Anita Gohdes 46:04

This is the one that recently was embroiled in a big secret meeting outside of Berlin where they were talking about plans to, I don't even want to use the word, but like, basically kick a bunch of people out of the country.

Leslie Johns 46:19

See, we're getting a little lesson in German politics as well.

Anita Gohdes 46:24

I'm really not the right person for this. I'm, you know, I'm just a newspaper reader.

Leslie Johns 46:29

That's all right. Yeah. No, you know far more than me. Oh, loss of state funding was the NPD, one of our guests wrote in. Okay. So I did read about that, I remember. I thought that was a really, really interesting case. Okay. Do you mind touching on how internet shutdowns by autocratic regimes affect the collection of evidence in human rights violation cases? Particularly during times of ongoing war? That's something I'm very interested in as well. So yeah, but you should answer it, because you're our guest.

Anita Gohdes 47:04

It's a huge problem. And it's part of what groups such as Access Now also fighting for, and I think, you just mentioned Gaza, right. One of the big reasons why people have been saying, you know, Internet access in Gaza is so important is so that all types of, you know, evidence can be collected. And I think we see that there's a huge impact, specifically, the work in Iran showed us that it doesn't only reduce the speed with which we get access to internet information, but it reduces the the quality of information that we have. And that is really important for, you know, accountability. But it's also important for us as social scientists, because it threatens our inference, when we don't have the same quality of information, depending on, you know, the level of information that comes outside, the level of internet accessibility.

Leslie Johns 47:53

Although does it necessarily, it doesn't necessarily lead to the destruction of evidence, right? Because people can still have things on their phones and upload it later, no? Or is there evidence suggesting that things really do get lost?

Anita Gohdes 48:07

There is evidence. So in Iran, we had specific evidence of mobile devices being confiscated. So families, for example, would pick up their loved ones from the hospital or from the morgue, and all the devices will be gone. So once things aren't, once there isn't this immediate opportunity to upload things to the cloud, it becomes more dangerous. And also you need, you know, you need devices with a lot of memory space to collect information. And if you can't upload it, then there's a limit that you hit when you don't have, you know, very high quality devices.

Leslie Johns 48:43

So the longer the shutdown, sort of, the more problematic that becomes, then I imagine.

Anita Gohdes 48:49

Especially in kind of, if it's in specific localities, where some, you know, some shutdowns go on for months, and then it becomes very difficult. Yeah. Okay.

Leslie Johns 49:00

And it looks like this will be our last question, and then I'll let you go. Did you specifically look at use of surveillance software used on smartphones, given that in many parts of the world people's access to the internet is through their phones; this type of software is often surreptitiously installed on smartphones as people walked by a given location. Did you, were you able to sort of look at different types of devices, or you were just sort of looking at nationwide shutdowns, right?

Anita Gohdes 49:33

I was looking at nationwide shutdowns. But in a lot of discussions I had with activists, I, you know, I learned a lot about the ways in which their devices have been affected. And the advantage, quote unquote, again, speaking from the perspective of a repressive government is that your phone doesn't only give you the information, but it also gives you the location as the, as the person mentioned in their question. So it's providing new forms of high quality metadata that are very relevant to the regime. And also, if the two of us are in a room for a long period of time, then there's very clear evidence that we've spent time together. And so those are new forms of network structures that just weren't available before.

Leslie Johns 50:17

Well, I've never gone through so many Q&As is during a talk, in part because I think you were the clearest speaker we have ever invited, we've gone through so much material, and you've answered questions so clearly and concisely. So thank you so much, Anita, thank you so much to our audience, our guests for joining us here today. Just to let everyone in the audience know, we do have a couple more great talks already lined up that are announced on our Burkle webpage. Please do go feel free to check them out. Go ahead and RSVP. We've got some great speakers coming up. And I look forward to seeing you all in the future. And thank you again, Anita Gohdes, for joining us today, and please everyone go buy the book. It's a really great read. Okay, goodbye, everyone.

Anita Gohdes 51:11

Thanks so much, Leslie. Bye.

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