News & Updates

The Road to Digital Unfreedom


Tuesday, March 19, 2019


3:00 pm - 4:30 pm


National Endowment for Democracy, 1025 F Street NW. Suite 800, Washington DC 20004


Once hailed  as a great force for human empowerment and liberation, social media—and the various related digital tools that enable people to search for, access, accumulate, and process information—have rapidly come to be regarded as a complex threat to democratic stability and human freedom. Democracies have been slow to recognize the multifaceted challenges posed by sharpening levels of online polarization and manipulation, new threats to individual rights and privacy in the digital space, the tension between the business model of social media companies and their responsibilities to democratic societies, and authoritarian efforts to diffuse digital technologies of surveillance and control. Ronald J. Deibert and Xiao Qiang discussed these threats, as outlined in their January 2019 Journal of Democracy articles on “Three Painful Truths about Social Media” and “President Xi’s Surveillance State,” respectively. Shanthi Kalathil of NED’s International Forum for Democratic Studies provided comments.


Ronald J. Deibert, Citizen Lab

Xiao QiangChina Digital Times

Shanthi Kalathil, International Forum for Democratic Studies


Christopher Walker, National Endowment for Democracy


Marc F. PlattnerJournal of Democracy



Ronald J. Deibert is professor of political science and director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. He was a co-founder and a principal investigator of the OpenNet Initiative (2003-2014) and Information Warfare Monitor (2003-2012) projects. Mr. Deibert was one of the founders and (former) VP of global policy and outreach for Psiphon, one of the world’s leading digital censorship circumvention services. He has published numerous articles, chapters, and books on issues related technology, media, and world politics. He was one of the authors of the landmark Tracking Ghostnet (2009) and the Shadows in the Cloud (2010) reports, which documented two separate major global cyber espionage networks, and the Great Cannon report, which documented a new offensive “cyber weapon” co-located with China’s Great Firewall. He is the author of Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace (2013).

Shanthi Kalathil is senior director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. Previously a senior democracy fellow at the US Agency for International Development and a regular consultant for the World Bank, the Aspen Institute and others, she has authored or edited numerous policy and scholarly publications, including the World Bank’s Developing Independent Media as an Institution of Accountable Governance, and (with Taylor C. Boas) Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule, a widely cited work that examined the Internet and authoritarian regimes. A former Hong Kong-based staff reporter for The Asian Wall Street Journal, Ms. Kalathil has also been an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, and has taught courses on international relations in the information age at Georgetown University and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. 

Marc F. Plattner is founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy and co-chair of the Research Council of the International Forum for Democratic Studies. Until 2016, when he reduced his schedule to part time, he also served as NED’s vice president for research and studies. From 1984 to 1989, he was NED’s director of program. He is the author of Democracy Without Borders? Global Challenges to Liberal Democracy (2008) and Rousseau’s State of Nature (1979), a study of the political thought of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Over the past two decades, he has co-edited with Larry Diamond more than two dozen books on contemporary issues relating to democracy in the Journal of Democracy book series. The most recent are Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy (2016, also with Christopher Walker) and Democracy in Decline? (2015).

Xiao Qiang is the founder and editor-in-chief of China Digital Times, a bilingual China news website. He is an adjunct professor at the School of Information and the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the Principal Investigator of the Counter-Power Lab, an interdisciplinary faculty-student research group focusing on technology and free flow of information in cyberspace, based in the School of Information, UC Berkeley. In fall of 2003, Xiao launched China Digital Timesto explore how to apply cutting edge technologies to aggregate, organize, and recommend online information from and about China. His current research focuses on mapping political discourses in Chinese cyberspace, measuring the state censorship and control of the Internet, and developing cloud-based technologies that can break through such censorship.

Christopher Walker is vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy. In this capacity, he is a member of NED’s executive leadership team and oversees the department that is responsible for NED’s multifaceted analytical work, which includes the International Forum for Democratic Studies, a leading center for the analysis and discussion of democratic development. Mr. Walker has twenty years of experience supporting democracy and independent media around the world. Among his areas of interest are the changing nature of “soft power” and modern authoritarianism. Prior to joining the NED, Mr. Walker was Vice President for Strategy and Analysis at Freedom House, overseeing that organization’s analytical work relating to political rights, and new and traditional media freedom. He is co-editor with Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner of Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), and co-editor of the report Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence (2017).


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