Autocrats must not get to take over the internet in covid times

The covid pandemic has shown us two sides of technological progress. There’s the positive side that has delivered safe and useful vaccines in record time, helped economies with new stay-at-home online tools and improved disease surveillance and public health. And there’s the negative side that’s turbocharged malicious actors’ and authoritarian regimes’ disinformation campaigns, hacking and disruption of opponents, and fostered a rise in public harms like ransomware attacks and fraud.

It’s this grim reality that the West must tackle as economies reopen, and the G7 summit next month is a perfect time to do it. Cyber threats have been warned about over the past year, but the scale and reach of the problem are hitting new heights. The US and Europe have accused China and Russia of stepping up information warfare—from covid conspiracy theories to misleading information on vaccines—and cyberattacks on Western targets, while further restricting their citizens’ liberties at home.

Freedom House, which last year found 75% of the world’s population lived in a country experiencing democratic decline, says the pandemic has cast a “digital shadow.”

There’s no easy fix. Moscow and Beijing’s push for digital ‘sovereignty’ has emboldened authoritarian regimes, as seen in Belarus’s forced landing of a Ryanair flight last week. The roots of this crisis, which has opened a new rift between the West and strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who has Russia’s backing, lie in information warfare. Lukashenko’s ostensible target was 26-year-old Raman Pratasevich, an exiled journalist and former editor of opposition media outlet Nexta, which operates through encrypted messaging app Telegram.

Last month, just days after Russia’s security services arrested two Belarusians and accused them of planning an uprising, Minsk said it had foiled a “coup” discussed on Zoom. Belarus authorities have blocked websites and restricted internet access since Lukashenko’s widely contested re-election in August (deemed by the EU to be neither free nor fair), and his Kremlin backers have lent their support. The ‘skyjacking’ sends out a message that…