Multiple western countries have been pushing bills supposedly aimed at cracking down on harmful content. Human rights are already targeted.
For the last few years, there has been a push to pass laws allegedly aimed at cracking down on harmful material. One such example is the disastrous UK Online Safety Bill which received royal assent last year. The Canadian government is also mulling their own online harms bill. In 2021, the government held fake consultations which have been described as a “consultation by notice” where the government presents its idea for a law and expecting the Canadian public to just nod approvingly before the government proceeded. The proposal ended up seeing widespread condemnation almost across the board with only the governments closest allies approving it.
Whether it is in the UK or in Canada, the criticism is generally that it would grant government unprecedented abilities to crack down on otherwise legal speech. Further, it could lead to increased surveillance on society and make it harder to criticize any government online in the future. Moreover, it would hinder online businesses ability to stay afloat as they face uncertainty with how they are supposed to moderate their content. In the Canadian example, moderating content to the satisfactory of the proposed law would be impossible in any practical sense.
Another criticism towards such laws is that such laws would inspire third world countries to push similar laws under a similar premise, but with the aim of cracking down further on human rights. This might sound like a more hypothetical scenario, but Amnesty International has noted that this gas already happened:
Responding to the passing of the draconian Online Safety Act in the Sri Lankan Parliament today, Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, Regional Researcher for South Asia at Amnesty International said:
“The passing of the Online Safety Act is a major blow to human rights in Sri Lanka. The Act is the newest weapon in the government’s arsenal of tools that could be used to undermine freedom of expression and suppress dissent. Authorities must immediately withdraw it and ensure respect for the human rights of everyone in the country.
“Many parts of the Act do not meet international human rights standards including overbroad provisions that would restrict the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of expression and privacy online, and vaguely worded, subjective offences such as ‘prohibited statements’ as determined and declared by a powerful ‘Online Safety Commission’. The rights to freedom of expression and privacy are guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Sri Lanka is a State party.
“As people grapple with and voice their concerns amid hardships during Sri Lanka’s economic crisis and the impact of government’s austerity measures, this legislation will be ripe for misuse by authorities and will be used to further restrict civic space, and crackdown on critics and opposition. In a year of elections, with a long history of cracking down on protests, the Sri Lankan authorities must demonstrate the political will to uphold their international human rights obligations and commitments by guaranteeing and ensuring respect for human rights before, during and after elections.”
The organization went on to offer a quick summary of the Sri Lanka law:
On 24 January, the Sri Lankan parliament voted to pass the Online Safety Act. The Online Safety Act provides broad powers to an ‘Online Safety Commission’ including deciding on what constitutes as “prohibited statements” and making recommendations to internet service providers to remove such content and disabling access for those deemed offenders. The Act also includes a prohibition on ‘communicating a false statement’ which poses a threat to national security, public health or public order or promotes feelings of ill-will and hostility between different classes of people or; voluntarily causes disturbance to any assembly lawfully engaged in the performance of religious worship or religious ceremonies.
The Bill has been criticised by many activists, civil society members, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) who said the bill will have ‘a chilling effect on freedom of expression.’
The UN organization, last year, had this to say about the Online Safety Bill:
With respect to the Online Safety Bill, we believe it will severely regulate and restrict online communication, including by the general public and will give authorities unfettered discretion to label and restrict expressions they disagree with as “false statements”.
Many sections of the Bill contain vaguely-defined terms and definitions of offences which leave significant room for arbitrary and subjective interpretation, and could potentially criminalize nearly all forms of legitimate expression, creating an environment that has a chilling effect on freedom of expression.
The UN Human Rights Office urges the Government to undertake further meaningful consultation with civil society and UN independent experts and to make substantial revisions of the draft laws in order to bring them into full compliance with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations.
At least with the Canadian version, as per the consultation, the criticism that what is classified as “harmful” is almost a mirror to the criticism of the Sri Lanka variation. Unless the Canadian government completely overhauls the definition, then what is known is that what is considered “harmful” is left to the interpretation of any anonymous complainant. This really isn’t that far removed from Sri Lanka’s “false statements” classification from the sounds of things. The similarities is downright spooky.
Now, some people out there might look at this and say something along the lines of, “well, we’re Canada. We’re different! We are a free democracy!” The problem with that kind of statement is that this won’t magically fix a badly written law in the first place. I mean, sure, you can say that we are a free society, does that mean we should be passing laws to crack down on those freedoms? I doubt that. If anything, the fact that we are a free society should mean that we should be doing everything in our power to defend those freedoms rather than erasing them entirely.
At any rate, if the Canadian government decides to move forward with the Online Harms proposal and turn it into a bill, it is no longer a hypothetical that other countries will draw inspiration and use such ideas to crack down on human rights in their own countries. This is now already a reality and people have every right to consider this concerning.