Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Promoting American Values and Countering Authoritarianism in Cyberspace

Key Points
  • Authoritarian regimes are proving increasingly adept at fragmenting and controlling the internet for purposes of censorship, surveillance, and internal and external propaganda and misinformation. The US has failed to counter this with an effective national security strategy that gives US public diplomacy the capabilities and missions needed for success in the information war.
  • Instead of focusing on producing original content, US public diplomacy and international broadcasting should embrace a 21st-century, multimedia, public broadcasting model to promote American values and truthful information in cyberspace.
  • The US should also strengthen and use existing tools of US diplomacy to advance freedom online as a universal (and universally accessible) human right, such as the multistakeholder internet governance forums, the Freedom Online Coalition, the National Endowment for Democracy, and State Department reports on internet freedom.


After a decade in which the explosive growth of the internet brought greater freedom, knowledge, community, and opportunity to billions of people worldwide, the pendulum is swinging back. Authoritarian regimes have learned to use the internet as an instrument of control at home and for propaganda—and political disruption—abroad. Such regimes are reshaping the norms of the internet in ways detrimental to US interests and values.

Meanwhile, the US has failed to respond effectively. The outgoing administration leaves behind little coherent strategy for advancing American values and interests in cyberspace. America’s public-diplomacy architecture occupies no strategically significant role in pursuing US policy objectives and is not integrated into strategic policymaking at the highest level, as it should be.

Public diplomacy is a potentially powerful weapon in America’s foreign and security policy arsenal, but as currently conceived and configured, it is largely dismissed by strategists and ignored by practitioners. This is because its various operational capabilities are hobbled by conflicting missions that lack strategic coordination, duplicate often unnecessary functions, share few assets that could produce multiplier effects, are hostage to processes and concepts whose intrinsic value to the design and implementation of US policy is questionable, and adapt reluctantly to a rapidly changing global marketplace of information and communications technology (ICT).

This proposal puts forward a strategy and specific steps to address those shortcomings. The strategy focuses on the program with by far the most public-diplomacy funding, even though it is outside the national security chain of command—US international broadcasting.

America’s strategy for winning the information war must focus on disseminating truthful information about America and American foreign policy, as well as about repressive regimes and repressed societies. The US should repurpose, refocus, and reorganize its public-diplomacy and international broadcasting capabilities away from producing original content as a journalistic and public relations exercise and toward a 21st-century, multimedia, public broadcasting programming model, focused on promoting truthful information and American values around the world.
Credit: Twenty20
Credit: Twenty20
In December 2016, as part of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 (NDAA), President Obama signed into law a sweeping reorganization of US international broadcasting capabilities.1 Section 1288 of the 2017 NDAA transfers the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) powers to a new CEO and its members to a new International Broadcasting Advisory Board. The legislation gives the new CEO sweeping powers to reorganize US international broadcasting, including by consolidating existing BBG networks and grantees into a single consolidated nonprofit network. It also provides a streamlined mission for the consolidated network. This legislation paves the way for badly needed reforms, including the reforms proposed in this report.

Another significant provision of the 2017 NDAA (Section 1287) provides for the secretary of state and secretary of defense to create an interagency, international Global Engagement Center (GEC) to “discover, expose and counter foreign government information warfare efforts (to include foreign propaganda and disinformation efforts) and proactively advance fact-based narratives that support US allies and interests.”2 Creating an information-sharing and coordination center is a valuable step toward enhancing the US government’s (USG) ability to challenge authoritarian regimes that are increasingly dominant in strategic information.

Online freedom is a universal human right. It is the right of people everywhere to speak and associate online and to have access to the information of their choice.3 As the UN Human Rights Council affirmed in 2012, “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”4

Realizing these rights requires access to a free and open internet—free of censorship and open to the participation of people everywhere without fear of being punished for engaging in legitimate political speech. Regrettably, authoritarian states are effectively using the internet as a tool of propaganda and control, including attempting to shape US political dialogue through strategic hacking and information release.

The US has proved poorly prepared to face these challenges. Facing them adequately will require bold and innovative reforms. The 2017 NDAA paves the way for badly needed reforms.

  1. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, Pub. L. No. 114-328 (2016).
  2. Joint Explanatory Statement of the Committee of Conference, HRPT-S2943, 114th Cong., November 2016, gov/billsthisweek/20161128/CRPT-114HRPT-S2943-JES.pdf.
  3. Online freedom has been widely acknowledged as a fundamental human right in, for example, the 2011 Deauville Declaration of the G8, a 2011 communiqué of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on “Principles for Internet Policy-Making,” and a 2012 resolution of the UN Human Rights Council, which confirmed that online freedom is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  4. Wendy Zeldin, “Global Legal Monitor,” Library of Congress, July 12, 2012,

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