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2022 Annual Report: Defending Democracy in a Digital World

Graphic for feature story in CDT's 2022 annual report, focused on defending democracy in a digital world. Two different hands, making peace signs towards the blue sky.
Graphic for feature story in CDT’s 2022 annual report, focused on defending democracy in a digital world. Two different hands, making peace signs towards the blue sky.

In 2022, technology provided the world a front-row seat to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As Ukrainians posted social media updates, coordinated critical supplies online, and sought reliable and safe web connections, the Kremlin used blocking, content filtering, internet shutdowns, and disinformation — the tools of modern authoritarians — to skew perceptions of the war in Russia and abroad.

CDT quickly recognized the importance of protecting democratic values amidst the chaos, and called on governments around the world to ensure that sanctions did not create a so-called “splinternet” severing Russians from alternative information sources. As the war continued, we also took the fight for democracy to the private sector, collaborating on guidelines for how social media companies should govern their platforms and moderate content to effectively protect human rights before, during, and after armed conflicts and other crises. 

CDT focused on preserving free and secure internet access for people worldwide. In testimony to the U.S. Senate, CDT’s Emma Llanso called on the U.S. to counter models of authoritarian internet regulation both at home and abroad, particularly as it pursues closer trade relations in the Indo-Pacific — a region home to more than half of the world’s internet users, where laws cementing state control of online speech and internet networks are proliferating. When the Indian government put new restrictions on virtual private network (VPN) providers that would limit the privacy protections of those services and subject users to increased surveillance, we sounded the alarm, and did the same when Iran moved to pass legislation that would further curtail human rights by making internet shutdowns easier and less transparent.

We also stepped up to defend private communications, maintaining our role as a leader of the Global Encryption Coalition. We were especially pleased to see the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights defend the importance of end-to-end encryption in the protection of democracy and human rights. The UN report echoed our concerns about the EU’s proposal to establish broad monitoring obligations for many digital communications platforms, as well as various legislative efforts in the UK, U.S., India and other countries that pose a direct threat to encryption

CDT continued our calls for action to combat the widespread use of spyware, like the NSO Group’s Pegasus, which is exploited to monitor the activities and communications of journalists and human rights defenders around the world. As CDT Europe Director Iverna McGowan testified before a European Parliament committee, such spyware and other forms of unlawful surveillance pose an existential threat to the right to communicate securely, and thereby to civic space, free and fair elections, and democracy itself. We called for an immediate moratorium on the sale, acquisition, transfer, and use of spyware, a recommendation that we were pleased to see the Parliament Committee’s rapporteur take on board.

The fight for digital democracy must also take place at home. As regulators and advocates around the world grapple with complex questions raised by new technologies, democracies must lead by finding ways to mitigate potential harms while preserving values that are fundamental to democracy. At the 2022 Summit for Democracy, and throughout our work, CDT makes clear that the democratic values we fight for in foreign policy must also be reflected in U.S. and EU domestic policy on surveillance, privacy, platform governance, encryption, and more. 

From the Freedom Online Coalition, to the U.S.-EU Trade & Technology Council, to internet standards bodies such as the IETF and W3C; from sit-downs with governments to conversations with companies; CDT is working to define what it means to implement internet policy with human rights and democracy first in mind — and to push leaders to act.