This Annotated Bibliography compiles and summarizes relevant literature on “transnational digital repression” (i.e., where states seek to exert pressure—using digital tools—on citizens living abroad in order to constrain, limit, or eliminate political or social action that threatens regime stability or social and cultural norms within the country). While transnational repression itself is not a new phenomenon, there has been limited research on how such repression is enabled and expanded by digital tools.
The resources included in this Annotated Bibliography are divided into three sections: (1) media reports and analysis, (2) technical reports, and (3) academic literature. These resources begin to paint a picture of how transnational digital repression works, which regimes engage in such activities and using what digital tools, and how these efforts impact diaspora communities. Media reports published in the past few years show that countries such as Saudi Arabia, China, Rwanda, and others use a range of digital tools in order to silence human rights activists, political dissidents, and journalists living abroad. These are in addition to ‘traditional’ mechanisms of repression such as in-person harassment and surveillance or threats to family, which are also touched on in this bibliography but are not the focus. Technical reports provide in-depth analysis regarding the types of digital tools utilized to engage in such repression. These reports reveal that the sophistication of digital techniques utilized varies; from phishing campaigns dependent on savvy social engineering to the deployment of sophisticated and expensive spyware to social media harassment. Academic articles—several relying on semi-structured interviews with different diaspora communities—examine how transnational digital repression affects the activities and lives of diaspora in different ways by bringing to the forefront the voices and experiences of those repressed.
Research into transnational digital repression is still nascent. Perhaps one of the most pressing questions to tackle is how transnational digital repression can be addressed once identified. Targets of transnational digital repression have attempted to use the legal system to seek justice and relief against such targeting by bringing legal actions against states undertaking, sponsoring or facilitating the targeting activities, as well as related actors, such as the companies producing the technology that facilitate such activities. However, these efforts have limits—for example, a lack of prosecutorial interest or expertise and challenges with attribution and state immunity under existing legal doctrines. A legal approach needs to be complemented with more research and policy guidance regarding what makes prevention and accountability so difficult in this space, and how it might be addressed through other means, such as the enactment of new domestic laws or providing more resources to digital security training and technical support for activists in the diaspora.
More generally, further research is required to understand how transnational digital repression affects the social and political lives of targets. Such research may provide a persuasive basis for policy-makers and governments in host countries in which targets reside to take specific action to prevent these types of activities. In particular, there remains limited research on not only how transnational digital repression facilitates the repression of political voices abroad, but also how it undermines the ability of individuals to live in and integrate into their new communities in their respective host countries. As the world continues to migrate online and as the Internet remains one of the key vehicles for international communications, academics are right to predict that transnational digital repression is likely to become a favourite tool of authoritarian regimes seeking to repress social and political action originating from abroad and will require further attention in order to ensure the protection of freedom of expression and opinion of all persons.