China expanded its attacks on internet freedom and democratic speech when it imposed a national security law on Hong Kong last month. Law enforcement agencies on the island are now empowered to compel websites and social media platforms to hand over user data, take down content and restrict user access on the thinnest of premises. It even raised the possibility that U.S. tech companies could be penalized for failing to crack down on activity that happens on their platforms outside Hong Kong itself.
At least one platform is immune to this ethical and financial bind, and it stems from American ingenuity, public investment in innovation and the wide appeal of democratic values.
The online information environment is a critical domain of competition between the United States and China and between democracies and authoritarian states more broadly. At issue are free expression and the ability of people and companies to use the internet without risk of their information's being shared with governments. Yet at the same time that China becomes more assertive on the issue, the U.S. may shoot itself in the foot in responding to this challenge.
U.S. companies interested in doing business with China have long faced pressure to compromise democratic values to participate in the billion-consumer Asian market — and many have. But tech companies in particular have struggled to find their footing, some because of censorship requirements and others for less principled reasons: They've been either unsuccessful in or banned from the mainland.
Hong Kong has been a more fertile ground for many U.S. tech companies, but they now face the choice of complying with requests for information that are increasingly likely to be used to violate human rights or to resist — and possibly cease operating in Hong Kong. Facebook, Google, Twitter, Zoom and LinkedIn said they were suspending handing over user data to Hong Kong authorities for the time being while the dust settles on the new law.
But at least one platform is immune to this ethical and financial bind, and it stems from American ingenuity, public investment in innovation and the wide appeal of democratic values: the encrypted messaging app Signal. If we continue to invest in technologies like this, the U.S. can contest Chinese restrictions on democratic expression. Sadly, the Trump administration has taken the opposite approach, undermining rather than promoting the infrastructure that enabled this tool's development.
While other companies ponder the ethics of operating in Hong Kong, Signal has faced no such dilemma. "We'd announce that we're stopping too, but we never started turning over user data to HK police," Signal tweeted. "Also, we don't have user data to turn over."
A favorite of journalists and activists worldwide for its robust end-to-end encryption, Signal has surged in popularity in Hong Kong since the law went into effect. The company's story combines the best of U.S. innovation, soft power and nonmilitary tools in defending our most fundamental values. They are essential to combat China's interference with popular sovereignty in Hong Kong.
Incubated by the eight-year-old U.S. Open Technology Fund, the Signal encryption protocol was explicitly designed in 2013 and 2014 to enhance privacy and counteract repressive surveillance. Its aim is to bypass government practices — such as the new Hong Kong measure — that strong-arm social networks or internet service providers into turning over user data or deleting political content.
The technology was developed open source, meaning the underlying software is free and publicly available, from nearly $3 million in U.S. government funding. It serves billions of users around the globe, not only on the Signal platform, but also in encrypted communications on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Skype.
Hong Kong demonstrators turned to more secure channels like Signal to coordinate their massive, enduring protest while avoiding police surveillance. Similarly, after Venezuela's contested 2018 presidential election, the Maduro regime drastically ramped up its internet censorship and online attacks against activists and journalists. In response, many journalists turned to Signal. Ditto for Russian activists after the government outlawed the encrypted app Telegram the same year.
Importantly, the concern — and the U.S.-China struggle — over data-gathering goes beyond the issue of what international tech companies must do to comply with Chinese law. There are also risks when people in democracies use information platforms designed in or connected with authoritarian states like China.
President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that the U.S. was considering banning the video-sharing app TikTok, for instance, for allegedly aggressively collecting user data that it could then make available to the Chinese government. TikTok also has drawn suspicion from lawmakers, the U.S. military and companies such as Wells Fargo.
In this information contest, some of democracies' best defenses are a good offense — such as spurring the creation of tools like Signal to empower activists and expand free expression.
That's why it's concerning that last month a new Trump appointee temporarily froze funding and abruptly tried to fire the Open Technology Fund's leadership and the heads of four news media organizations, including Radio Free Asia, under his purview — a move that threatens to limit the independence of the fund and the outlets. The Open Technology Fund, on whose board one of us has sat since it spun off from Radio Free Asia, has filed suit to challenge the action.
Ultimately, supporting free expression — and harnessing the full potential of U.S. innovation to do so — is our best way to counter authoritarian information manipulation and control.
Signal is not the Open Technology Fund's only success story. Today, two-thirds of the world's mobile devices use Open Technology Fund-supported technology. Its innovations range from FreeWeChat (which provides an open repository of messages that Chinese censors have blocked) to a cutting-edge virtual private network. It has also created a global platform for tailoring internet freedom products to local conditions and nurtured technologies used by nearly 2 billion people in China, Iran, Russia, Cuba and other repressive states.
Ultimately, supporting free expression — and harnessing the full potential of U.S. innovation to do so — is our best way to counter authoritarian information manipulation and control. In a global contest over information, politics should not compromise America's approach to technology development or its vital support for vulnerable communities that rely on such technology to help them stay safe. Digital repression that is expanding in Hong Kong and around the globe must be met by democracies with 21st century tools.