Western Countries Have Become So Anti-Human Rights, They’ll Take the Economic Hits

Canada, the United States, and the UK have been pushing for human rights crackdowns with their respective internet bills.

Many so-called “western” countries have often prided themselves as a stalwart defender of human rights. Whether it is the right to freedom of expression, the right to privacy and security, and many more, governments have touted this as benefits of having liberal democracies. What’s more, these liberal attitudes have led to a boon to economic activity. People start businesses in these environment, trade goes up, and the benefits allow people to rise out of poverty. Sure, some question the need for some of these rights and often challenge the need for such civil rights, however, the economic benefits as well as those who enjoy those rights so often push back against these thoughts, holding them into submission as people stand together to protect these hard fought rights.

An Anti-Human Rights West

In recent years, however, there has been a disturbing trend among the countries that view themselves as a beacon of light in an era of extremist rhetoric. Human rights is increasingly seen as an obstacle that needs to be overcome as opposed to a precious gift that needs to be protected. Ask experts in the field of digital technology and they’ll very likely have noticed this trend in some form or another.

Since we are based out of Canada, we’ve seen this first hand with multiple government bills. For instance, the Online Streaming Act, a law that is currently working its way through the CRTC processes. It is a law that concludes that some forms of speech are more important than other forms of speech. What’s more, the law says that the government should be in charge of determining what is considered important speech while other forms of speech should be ghettoized on the internet. Those laws then compels platforms (namely streaming services) to abide by this, downranking non-government approved speech while forcing government approved speech onto Canadian’s after.

Then there is Canada’s Online News Act. It is a law that was originally intended to decide what counts as a news source and what does not. The idea is that “eligible” news sources should receive a massive financial boost to keep their operations afloat while more niche news sources should be left fighting for whatever scraps are left over. The law threatens to undermine the right to freedom of the press by exerting financial pressure on smaller news outlets that are less likely to tow government or corporate lines. As we all know now, though, the link tax law has backfired spectacularly, leading to platforms to block news links leading to these “eligible” news outlets, leaving us smaller outlets intact on these platforms.

Over top of that, recent moves by the Canadian government suggests that the online harms bill, a forthcoming piece of legislation, is not yet dead yet. It would saddle Canadian websites with multi-million fines should they not respond to any anonymous complaint at all within 24 hours, making it all but impossible to practically stay afloat. This while ordering ISPs to block access to foreign websites that do not comply with these laws as well. In the process, it allows the government to determine what is and is not “harmful” misinformation. These days, that tends to be criticism towards the governments approach on things as the other two bills have clearly demonstrated.

Then there is the US with their own slate of bad internet bills. KOSA (Kids Online Safety Act) is America’s internet censorship bill where people are asked to register their real identities while, at the same time, identifying where they live among other things. This is an effort to block so-called “controversial” topics. Platforms would be ordered to block anything a state attorney general deems “harmful”. Some have been chomping at the bit for this law because it means they would have a very powerful tool to crack down on LGBTQ+ speech and content. While congress has claimed to have fixed the issues, civil rights organizations are, rightfully, unconvinced.

Another example is the multiple link tax laws as well. Whether it is the JCPA (which is the federal version of this) or the CJPA (which is the California state level version of this), these efforts order platforms to pay fees for the privilege of hosting news links in the US. As has been demonstrated in the US, Canada, and elsewhere, platforms have little reliance on news links to keep their businesses afloat and would rather drop news links than needlessly pay hundreds of millions of dollars. Part of the US push for link taxes, however, is that platforms would have to abide by “must carry” provisions as well. This, of course, is very likely unconstitutional because this is a form of compelled speech – something that US courts have repeatedly ruled as violating the 1st amendment.

A third example is the California Age Appropriate Design Code Act which has worked its way through the lawmaking process. It has a number of similarities to KOSA, but in a nutshell, it would burden websites that could possibly be accessed by a minor with huge amounts of work to ensure that it is in compliance with something called a “DPIA”. This while demanding that websites collect huge amount of personal information about minors on top of it all. This, of course, undermines privacy rights.

Then there is the headaches going on in the UK as well. Front and centre is the disaster that is the passage of the Online Harms bill. It’s a law that orders web services to break their encryption for, you know, the purposes of protecting your privacy of course. This while threatening jail sentences for people who might say something mean online. Over top of that are provisions related to the terrible age verification requirements, ordering websites to collect personal information of everyone all under the name of ‘protecting the children’ from seeing too much skin somewhere along the line. It’s a threat to privacy, security, and freedom of expression rolled up into one big nightmare.

Over top of this is the UKs version of the link tax which threatens to cause financial instability for media outlets in that country – the same reason it is threatening the financial stability of the media in Canada and the US. So, a threat to freedom of the press is also lurking around in the legislative mess in the UK.

The Economic Harms This Inflicts

All of the above either threatens to inflict economic harm or is already causing economic harm to the countries pushing these dangerous laws. The link tax in Canada, for instance, has already caused some outlets to either put a freeze on expansion and hiring while others have announced operational slowdowns.

In the UK, Signal has already reaffirmed that they would rather leave the UK then violate the privacy of the users that use their services. Several other encrypted services have also said that they would do the same in the lead up to the passage of the Online Harms bill.

In the US, the only thing that seems to be keeping online businesses in California in light of the Age Appropriate Design Code Act is the fact that it won’t come into force until 2025 and the CCIA is seemingly going to challenge the bill in court on constitutional grounds. Otherwise, there is enormous financial incentives for web services to leave Silicone Valley and move to another state that doesn’t have these insane laws.

There is one common thread among all of this: while harming basic civil liberties was not a strong disincentive for governments to pursue these damaging laws, the economic harms was a more powerful disincentive – and that disincentive has weakened in recent years.

Indeed, when a YouTuber goes from recording things on a small cheap handheld camera to blowing up into a large media company, the potential taxes government collects on such an operation is no longer going to dissuade a government from ruining that persons career and business future. If an entrepreneur develops a bold new method to protect people from online criminals, a government will have no problem killing that concept before it becomes an economic success. If someone sets up a small online business selling products in an innovative way, the government has no problem burying that business in paperwork.

All of this in pursuit of legal theories that have no basis in reality. These theories include thinking that the internet just just another glorified cable TV channel, encryption can be safely broken as long as the large companies “nerd harder”, or that online websites are corrupting the youth of the nation and the government needs to step in and tell them how to handle people’s personal information for the safety of the children.

How did we get here? How did we get to the point where our own governments have developed such a hate for human rights that they are willing to disrupt their own economies to rip human rights to shreds? After all, the YouTuber that creates a media empire is likely to be able to create a number of good paying jobs. That new encryption startup is going to need employees to manage all fronts of their operation. The possibility of having that new innovative startup could lead to a number of economic spinoff opportunities. None of this seems to matter to these governments. Even in an era of seemingly neverending economic uncertainty, governments have increasingly looked at these economic opportunities and responded collectively by saying, “not worth it”. It defies all logic and common sense.

Anti-Human Rights Tendencies Shows No Real Political Leaning

Perhaps the worst part of all of this is the political side of things. It might be easy to point to one side of the aisle or the other and say that all the problems come from there. The truth in the matter is that traditional political ideology doesn’t seem to matter. Whether it is the right wing Conservative government of the UK or the Liberal government of Canada, these dangerous ideas are cropping up across the spectrum. The only differences is the motive to abuse these laws.

Indeed, for many hardcore right wingers, the problem they see is that moderating content is the problem and web services must be motivated to not stem things like hate speech. For left leaning types, the problem is that there’s too much speech and we must curtail it so that only certain businesses that they have close ties to can thrive. Neither viewpoint is all that great in the first place and inherently leads to numerous problems.

If you want further proof that cracking down on human rights online is a non-partisan thing, KOSA is a prime example of this – a bill that has bi-partisan support.

Politically, this is extremely problematic. Who do you vote for when both the two major political parties want to tear up basic human rights and will take a sledge hammer to the economy to do it? It’s a major conundrum I personally have because in all the years of analysis and logically thinking things through, even I don’t have an answer to that because not voting at all is even worse. Continued advocacy for sane laws and reporting on the facts is the only answer I can come up with that seems at least reasonable from an individual perspective.

Where Do things Go to From Here?

The situation is seemingly growing more grim by the month as well. Not only are terrible laws being proposed, but some of them are passing and becoming law. Maybe another country out there will be bold and become a champion for digital rights. That country would end up reaping huge economic benefits as a result. The way things are going, that country won’t be any of the three mentioned above.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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