An open, unfiltered internet could be the key to toppling autocrats

Look for news stories about Russia’s war in Ukraine or women-led protests in Iran, and you’ll see violence and bloodshed as Russians attack civilians and Iranian police target protesters. It goes without saying that these images reflect the reality on the ground, and we are right to increase our support for those fighting directly against the regimes.

But in the information age, information itself is the main weapon and should not be neglected in the fight against authoritarian regimes. The fact is that the long-term path of the war in Ukraine goes through the center of Moscow and the streets of St. Petersburg, just as the long-term path of the protests in Iran goes through the center of Tehran and the religious centers of Qom. The long-term battle is for the hearts and minds of the peoples of Russia and Iran, who have the ability to end the reign of terror that President Vladimir Putin and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei inflict on their people, their people, and their neighbors.

Military losses in Ukraine alone will not be enough to force Putin to surrender. Conversely, the more the West suffers at the hands of its weapons, the more likely Putin will resort to increasingly brutal tactics. As we have already seen, as casualties mount, Putin increasingly attacks civilian targets and waves the flag of nuclear first use. Moreover, as these losses mount, Putin’s chances of being ousted by an even more aggressive fanatic increase, as he may be seen as weak and incapable of success by the power-hungry fanatics who supported this invasion in the first place.

Likewise, in Iran, as we have seen, images of women standing up against longstanding male oppressors and openly challenging the regime were crucial to forcing the beginnings of change from within.

A key way to influence this dynamic is for allies to provide the peoples of Russia and Iran with open and secure Internet access, allowing them to access information without their governments drawing attention, filtering content, or tracking their movements. Allowing citizens access to Western media and the most up-to-date, accurate news from the field can help the United States and our allies take on the domestic propaganda machines of Russia and Iran.

With such a speech, Russians and Iranians will be able to see more clearly for themselves the violence against Ukrainians and Iranian women, learn the truth of the growing failures of their leaders, and potentially hear the voices of alternative leaders. In addition, open and secure Internet access will help citizens of Russia and Iran to organize and mobilize, reducing the risk of being caught in the deep digital surveillance by the regime of Putin and Khamenei.

In many ways, open and secure internet access is the modern equivalent of the very successful Cold War broadcasting regimes: VOA, RFE/RL and many others. Today’s capabilities are even stronger because they allow resistance movements to directly disseminate and publish information, engage and mobilize populations. Online videos can provide training, WhatsApp can help mobilize, Google Maps can guide forces and protesters, and Twitter can provide news and ideas.

Indeed, these aspects of information flow are precisely why authoritarian regimes routinely censor and monitor activity on their country’s internet. Open access to information is the weapon that most frightens authoritarians like Putin and Khamenei.

Thankfully, the US and our allies today have the technology to change that. From providing broadband Internet access through small satellite hotspots and providing access to heavily encrypted virtual private networks, allied governments can partner with private companies to help citizens in authoritarian countries bypass regime firewalls and connect directly and securely to the open Internet. This tactic will be difficult for authoritarian regimes to combat, as finding and arresting those associated with these hotspots is likely to backfire and further alienate populations hungry for more information.

Funding the deployment of such hotspots in authoritarian countries, ensuring consistent and secure access, and working with the private sector to develop the next generation of such access, including capabilities that are easier to mask and harder to block, is the responsibility of the United States and our allies.

The only “good” end to the war in Ukraine and the protests in Iran will be when their future governments decide to stop brutalizing their own people and neighbors. A critical weapon to help those seeking to achieve these goals will be one that can break the back of the Russian and Iranian propaganda machines: open and secure Internet access for their citizens.

Ram Fish is the CEO of 19Labs and a professor at Case Western Reserve University. Brian Gran is Professor of Sociology, Law, and Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University.. Jamil N. Jaffer is the founder and executive director of the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia School of Law, and former senior counsel and senior counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee..

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