It was easy for Western elites to dream that borders would matter less over time after the end of the Cold War and the rise of the EU. However, this dream led to bad policy decisions. Perhaps the most disastrous was entering into unrestricted trade with autocratic regimes – China in particular – in the hopes that unrestricted trade would yield wealth, resulting in a Chinese pivot to Western, liberal values. Time has proved the folly of that policy.
The rise of big data
When Clive Humby referred to data like the new oil in 2006, it was in the context of the early days of big data analytics. But massive data sets are much more important these days. Now they are used to train large language models – the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). An enormous amount of human language is required to train this model. The material used to train the world’s most advanced language machines is, in fact, the entire internet.
Technologists also dreamed that the digital world would be limitless. However, organizations with the best hardware, smartest people and access to the largest data sets will win the race to build the world’s best AI. Government-sponsored researchers in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) certainly have the first two. There is no reason to give them unfettered access to the third party.
What are the stakes?
The liberal-democratic regimes of the world have a serious problem with digital border controls. Instead of one global internet, it has started to fragment. This is driven by the PRC and the Russian Federation, which have implemented extensive network surveillance regimes.
The internet is a physical thing, although its infrastructure is largely invisible. Data is transferred physical fiber optic cables or via point-to-point wireless connections. So when a state decides to control internet access, it’s a technical challenge, but not a huge one. The People’s Republic of China has discovered how to do this very effectively with the “Great Firewall”. Nothing happens without government approval and supervision. PRC nationals who think they are gaining significant security by using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) are dangerously mistaken.
In China, data is being collected for use in creating predictive tools and quelling potential unrest. This creates a situation where the Internet can be used in four crucial ways to the advantage of autocratic regimes:
- These regimes can control access to the Internet and apply a tight and invisible censorship to what people can and cannot see from the outside world. Facts, statements and articles in the free Western press that don’t fit the regime’s authorized narrative are simply invisible, while those that bolster the regime’s propaganda are prominently displayed. This allows the regime to attach external credibility and validation to internal propaganda.
- Western networks exposed to routine and devastating legion to attack by the agents of autocratic regimes. This capability is armed for IP theft, intelligence, harassment, financial crime and gray zone warfare.
- The citizens and businesses of Western regimes are subjected to targeted, direct calls through commercial break and more subtle means by the state-run entities of our authoritarian adversaries. For example, autocratic regimes have attempted to delegitimize election results by interfering in electoral processes by spreading propaganda.
- Perhaps most importantly, unfettered access to the entire Internet enables unfettered collection of data. While autocratic regimes focused on an application database To secure personal and sensitive information, an even more important development is the broader set of raw, human-generated text needed to train AI language models.
The stakes couldn’t be higher when training artificial general intelligence systems. AI is the first tool that convincingly replicates the unique capabilities of the human mind. It has the ability to create a unique, focused user experience for each citizen. This may be the ultimate propaganda tool, a weapon of deception and persuasion such as has never existed in history.
What can be done?
It is vital that Western liberal-democratic states guard our digital borders and transform this confrontation into one that gives them a differentiated advantage. Three interrelated policies should be adopted:
Digital relations should be symmetrical between states: For states that give their citizens unrestricted access to US and related digital content, we must continue to allow unrestricted access. For states that completely restrict content and try to control what their citizens can access, we need to completely cut off their access to US-based digital data.
The US must recognize that companies from the PRC and Russia are state weapons: Such companies must not operate in the US or with our allies. This is especially true where an asymmetry is imposed. For example, Visa does not operate freely in Chinaso Alipay – and their parent company, Alibaba – are not allowed to operate in the US. Much of the value the PRC is getting from the operations of these U.S. companies is the extraction of large datasets used to train AI, which can then be weaponized against U.S. citizens.
The US should sponsor the development and implementation of low-cost, highly capable satellite Internet endpoints directly to the citizens of authoritarian regimes. These endpoints must be hideable, fast enough to download video, and they must provide unrestricted access to the entire Western Internet. Elon Musk’s effort from Starlink to support our allies in Ukraine is the tip of the spear in terms of the potential of new satellite networks for spreading Western values and undermining the institutions of our adversaries.
When Western states fail to control the cross-border movement of digital data, opponents benefit from that openness. The beautiful anarchy of the early internet has turned into a tool for subversion and repression. Western powers must thwart this dynamic by once again transforming the Internet into a tool to spread our values and support our interests. The US has no control over what goes in and out of China, but we can and should force a symmetrical flow of digital information through the world’s Great Firewall, while building channels for direct communication with the subjects of autocratic regimes.
Michael Hochberg is president of Luminous Computing.
General Robert Spalding is a national security expert, having served for more than 26 years in leadership roles in strategy and diplomacy at the Departments of Defense and Foreign Affairs.