Policymakers Need To Realize How Any Internet Regulation Will Impact Speech
from the censorship-comes-in-many-forms dept
The internet is about speech. That’s basically all the internet is. It’s a system for communicating, and that communication is speech. What’s becoming increasingly frustrating to me is how in all of these attempts to regulate the internet around the globe, policymakers (and many others) seem to ignore that, and act as if they can treat internet issues like other non-speech industries. We see it over and over again. Privacy law for the internet? Has huge speech implications. Antitrust for the internet? Yup, speech implications.
That’s not to argue that all such regulations can’t be done in ways that don’t violate free speech rights, but to note that those who completely ignore the free speech implications of their regulations are going to create real problems for free speech.
The latest area where this is showing up is that the UN has been working on a “Cybercrime Treaty.” And, you can argue that having a more global framework for responding to internet-based crime sounds like a good thing, especially as such criminal behavior has been rapidly growing. However, the process is already raising lots of concerns about the potential impact on human rights. And, most specifically, there are massive concerns about how a Cybercrime Treaty might include speech related crimes.
So it is concerning that some UN Member States are proposing vague provisions to combat hate speech to a committee of government representatives (the Ad Hoc Committee) convened by the UN to negotiate a proposed UN Cybercrime treaty. These proposals could make it a cybercrime to humiliate a person or group, or insult a religion using a computer, even if such speech would be legal under international human rights law.
Including offenses based on harmful speech in the treaty, rather than focusing on core cybercrimes, will likely result in overbroad, easily abused laws that will sweep up lawful speech and pose an enormous menace to the free expression rights of people around the world. The UN committee should not make that mistake.
As we’ve been noting for years, “hate speech laws” are almost always abused by governments to silence dissent, rather than protect the marginalized. Indeed, one look at the countries pushing for the Cybercrime Treaty to include hate speech crimes should give you a sense of the intent of the backers:
For example, Jordan proposes using the treaty to criminalize “hate speech or actions related to the insulting of religions or States using information networks or websites,” while Egypt calls for prohibiting the “spreading of strife, sedition, hatred or racism.” Russia, jointly with Belarus, Burundi, China, Nicaragua, and Tajikistan, also proposed to outlaw a wide range of vaguely defined speech intending to criminalize protected speech: “the distribution of materials that call for illegal acts motivated by political, ideological, social, racial, ethnic, or religious hatred or enmity, advocacy and justification of such actions, or to provide access to such materials, by means of ICT (information and communications technology),” as well as “humiliation by means of ICT (information and communications technology) of a person or group of people on account of their race, ethnicity, language, origin or religious affiliation.”
It’s like a who’s who of countries known for oppressing dissent at every opportunity.
Once again, it’s reasonable to argue that there should be some more regulations for the internet, but if you don’t recognize how those will be abused to stifle speech, you’re a part of the problem.