Internet authoritarianism threatens shift away from democracy

The last degree of privacy enjoyed by internet users will soon be stripped in favor of communication corporations ability to track activity and slow or block service accordingly. Congress passed this bill last week, and President Trump is expected to sign it into law.

Congressional Republicans and Donald Trump are doing this under the auspices of supporting private business, claiming that the opportunity for sale and trade of a massive amount of consumer data could bolster business. However, understand that if internet service providers have the ability to monitor the entirety of our internet activity and complete freedom to sell it to advertisers, so could the government.

Politicians are not far from being able to legally buy the internet activity of people they hold personal vendettas against – other politicians, private citizens and journalists alike.

“Today’s vote means that Americans will never be safe online from having their most personal details stealthily scrutinized and sold to the highest bidder,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, to the Washington Post.

The ability to manipulate the every day activity of private citizens is what totalitarian leaders do to impose a state of fear and subdue civil resistance.

I have no intention of being inflammatory or spewing liberal talking points when I say this. I’m studying politics and history in Central Europe. The Czech Republic, as well as Poland, had rich traditions of democracy once. I am reminded here how easily those traditions were dissolved by brutal communist dictators. People went along with it because they initially did not take the dangers of these egomaniacs seriously.

Now, in Hungary and Poland, authoritarianism is rising again. Hungary has not truly been a democracy for five years. If anywhere would be safeguarded against that kind of regime shift, it should be the country and the people who lived under it and had to take drastic measures to reverse it. However, they too are vulnerable to the rhetoric of extreme nationalism, xenophobic populism and strongman leaders.

We are no different from them. In fact, the lack of authoritarianism in our history probably makes us more naïve  and prone to dismissing these dangerous steps.

The tactics dictators use to transition from democracy to nationalist authoritarianism include threatening political enemies with incarceration, discrediting and controlling the free press, censoring avenues of communication like the internet, privatization of prisons, use of corporations for political control, terminology framing foreigners as a disease, undermining election results through baseless claims of voter fraud, restricting travel and using “security” as an excuse to deny rights.

Trump has done or proposed all of these steps. The United States is not immune.

My fear is sincere. I desperately want to believe the United States is fundamentally different than these European countries, that we are secure from the forces of authoritarianism. I’m searching to see our safety, but I’m coming up short.


Annie Cappetta is a junior majoring in ecosystem science and policy and political science.