November 17, 2021

The Future of the Digital Order

Executive Summary

Nations that successfully harness the vast economic, political, and societal power of emerging information and communications technologies will shape the future of the global digital order. This future is not set in stone. A digital order defined by liberal democratic values requires U.S. leadership and the cooperation of trusted like-minded partners. In the absence of democratic leadership, autocratic rivals of the United States can fill that void—exploiting the control of information, surveillance technologies, and standards for technology governance to promote a digital ecosystem that entrenches and expands their authoritarian practices.

In exploring how a closed, illiberal order is taking root in strategic regions around the world, this report offers recommendations for how to craft, promote, and preserve a more open and democratic alternative. An assessment of crosscutting trends between China, Russia, and the Middle East across three pillars—information control, surveillance, and technology governance—leads us to the following conclusions:

  • China is the prime mover in shaping the evolving digital order in its favor. Beijing’s use of technologies such as facial recognition software and telecommunications networks allows the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to expand control over its citizens. The CCP’s ability to promote and export this model of digital repression, in turn, gives like-minded, nondemocratic governments a roadmap for how to deploy digital technologies for control and abuse in their own countries.
  • Russia’s model of digital authoritarianism, while technologically less sophisticated than China’s, could prove to be more readily adaptable and enduring for current and aspiring autocrats. Regional powers such as Belarus, Azerbaijan, and some Central Asian states have already incorporated elements of this model.
  • In the Middle East, authoritarian leaders use digital tools to control internal populations by sabotaging and spying on citizens, and this contributes to the construction of an illiberal digital order that is beneficial to America’s peer competitors—China and Russia.

These conclusions reveal four key trends with implications for the future of the digital order:

  • Growing China-Russia alignment will generate dangerous digital synergies, such as (1) making digital autocracy accessible for a broader swath of states; (2) accelerating China’s and Russia’s digital innovation; (3) eroding liberal norms in international institutions; and (4) raising the prospects of a “splinternet,” a fragmenting of the internet along nationalistic, political, technological, religious, or ethnic lines.
  • Countries around the world, particularly autocratic regimes and those flirting with illiberalism, will seek to regulate online communications platforms through (1) social media; (2) data localization laws; and (3) instigating company self-censorship, which restricts free speech and increases online control.
  • Illiberal regimes will seek out Chinese technology to help them control social movements and civil protests. U.S. nondemocratic partners, adversaries, and even some democratic partners justify their pursuit of Chinese technology by underscoring ways the adopted technologies will contribute to economic growth, social stability, and efforts to fight crime and terrorism.
  • The practices of illiberal regimes will reduce the efficacy of U.S. mitigation practices. Russia and China’s efforts to promote an illiberal digital order complement one another and could accelerate innovation between the two nations.

The United States must craft a policy response that considers these emerging patterns and incorporates more than its usual partners in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. Shoring up the existing coalition of democratic actors to counter these illiberal trends will likely not be sufficient. This report offers recommendations that the United States can implement on three fronts: at home, while engaging with traditional U.S. democratic as well as nondemocratic partners, and when countering U.S. adversaries such as China, Russia, and Iran. The United States must take a leadership role, recognizing that the future digital order is at stake.

Summary of Recommendations

Effective policy responses must engage a range of actors to address intersecting regional trends and the implications of authoritarian attempts to reshape the digital order. This report offers recommendations to guide U.S. efforts to advance a more liberal democratic order by addressing data protection and data privacy at home, by working with the governments of other countries—both democratic and nondemocratic partners—and by challenging competitors. To implement these recommendations, coordination between legislative bodies, federal agencies, and White House officials will be instrumental.

At Home

The United States needs to put its own digital house in order to effectively shape and promote a liberal digital order around the world. A shortfall in regulatory oversight and a lack of national policies on digital matters is inhibiting America’s ability to lead.

The United States should enact a national data protection and privacy law. Congress should:

  • Establish a data protection framework that clearly articulates the U.S. approach to data privacy at home.

Relevant U.S. government entities should hold regular formal consultations with U.S. tech companies on the risks of doing business in countries with nondemocratic governments. The National Security Council, in conjunction with the Departments of State and Commerce, should:

  • Initiate an ongoing dialogue between government officials and tech company executives on matters of digital freedom.

The U.S. government needs to prioritize research and development of privacy-preserving technology solutions. To this end, Congress and the White House would be well served to:

  • Create incentives for novel research in technologies that preserve privacy of data, while also maintaining the use of techniques to extract value from datasets.

With Democratic Partners

The United States must work with like-minded democratic partners to ensure a digital order that preserves and promotes open societies, and to combat the illiberal use of emerging digital technologies.

The U.S. government needs to recruit and convene democratic allies—both bilaterally and multilaterally—to craft and execute a comprehensive framework to shape the future digital order. The White House should:

  • Formalize the tech alliance concept of a global governing body of techno-democracies to coordinate policy with a broader pool of allies.
  • Pursue bilateral and minilateral working groups with techno-democracies to coordinate policies and strategies pertaining to technology.
  • Expand cooperation on digital initiatives in the Indo-Pacific with like-minded democratic partners, starting with the Quad countries.
  • Work through the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council to develop a shared vision and approach to managing the human rights implications of technology.

The U.S. government must work in tandem with industry leadership in international standard-setting bodies to promote better alignment and coordination with like-minded countries within these bodies. To effect this, the White House and Congress ought to:

  • Engage key partners to counter China’s influence within international bodies that set standards for fundamental technologies.
  • Provide financial support or incentives for U.S. firms to increase their representation on international bodies that depend on industry stakeholders.

The U.S. government should counsel key partners on best practices for investment screening and export controls. The White House and the Departments of State, Commerce, and Treasury should:

  • Design and strengthen systems for screening technologies that are susceptible to abuse by authoritarians.
  • Establish interagency processes to coordinate technology policy partnerships.
  • Use the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council to share insights on specific companies and cases that need to be protected.

The United States should work with its democratic partners to incentivize and encourage middle income and developing countries to invest in trusted and secure technologies and technology infrastructure. To this end, we recommend that Congress and the White House:

  • Provide financial support or incentives so that democratically aligned digital firms from allied and partner countries will provide trusted alternatives to Chinese digital investments.
  • Establish a Digital Development Fund through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to collaborate with the International Development Finance Corporation (DFC).
  • Develop assessment frameworks and standards to vet digital development projects with the State Department, USAID, and the DFC.
  • Support democratic innovation bases that give incentives to diverse vendors and focus on developing secure and modular alternatives to China’s Safe City and surveillance technology solutions.

The United States needs to boost multilateral engagement on governance and technical norms and standards as they pertain to emerging digital ecosystems. To effect this, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is advised to:

  • Launch initiatives with allies in the Indo-Pacific to build out a shared set of norms on safe practices for the use of cutting-edge technologies, which can then undergird future proposals at international standards bodies.

U.S. government agencies should build local resilience among civil society and watchdog groups to combat foreign influence operations or other forms of illiberal technology use. The State Department should:

  • Establish a standalone Digital Rights Fund to support civil society groups playing a watchdog role.
  • Provide best-practices training to local media in countries such as Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia on how to counter Chinese and other disinformation campaigns, and empower civil society organizations in countries that are particularly vulnerable to digital influence operations.
  • Develop an expanded Fulbright Scholars program for journalists from countries on the front line of Chinese influence campaigns.

With Nondemocratic Partners

The United States does not have the luxury of working only with like-minded, democratic allies. To provide a formidable counterweight to such antidemocratic competitors as China, Russia, and Iran, it must emphasize digital freedom concerns in bilateral relations with other nondemocratic partners.

U.S. agencies should regulate U.S. entities or persons’ participation in and support of the illiberal use of technology in overseas markets. The Commerce and State Departments must:

  • Provide explicit guidance to U.S. companies operating in the markets of nondemocratic partners, and take measures to prohibit U.S. companies from entering joint ventures with Chinese companies in areas that could have negative implications for digital freedom, such as smart cities.
  • Take measures to establish a noncompete regulation to prevent former cybersecurity experts and officials trained or previously employed by the U.S. government from working for foreign governments.

Countering U.S. Competitors

The United States must leverage its powerful economic tools to counter competitors’ illiberal technology use. Together with its allies and partners, the United States should work to effectively combat tech-enabled human rights abuses and other repressive policies.

The United States is advised to harness sanctions, advisories, and export control measures to impose costs on the repressive practices of illiberal governments. The White House should:

  • Consider additional Magnitsky Act sanctions and Leahy law restrictions—in concert with the Commerce Department’s Entity List—if companies are found to be complicit in tech-enabled human rights abuses.
  • Coordinate with the Commerce and Treasury Departments to sanction illiberal governments’ digital economies, including cybersecurity firms, in cases of their use of technology for repressive or disruptive purposes. This will signal that regimes must be responsible actors to participate in the global ecosystem.

Relevant U.S. agencies must focus on protecting areas of comparative strength vis-à-vis nationstate adversaries. To this end, the U.S. Commerce Department is advised to:

  • Assess relative costs and benefits of export controls on artificial intelligence (AI) chips, which can encourage import substitution, versus targeted end-use/end-user controls on chips and on the semiconductor manufacturing equipment that is used to make the chips.

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  1. Andrew Imbrie, discussion with co-author, August 3, 2020; Saif Khan and Alexander Mann, “AI Chips: What They Are and Why They Matter” (Center for Security and Emerging Technology, April 2020),


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