Global Internet freedom is in decline. Authoritarian states manipulate the Internet to serve their own illiberal ends. But liberal democracies have also limited Internet freedom to counter contemporary scourges such as fake news, hate speech, and terrorist content.
Germany´s Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) is the most prominent weapon in the online arsenal of democracies. NetzDG obliges social media platforms to remove illegal content within 24 hours or risk huge fines. But in a global free speech race to the bottom, the NetzDG matrix has been copy-pasted by authoritarian states to provide cover and legitimacy for digital censorship and repression.
A new report by Jacob Mchangama and Joelle Fiss documents that at least 13 countries have adopted or proposed models similar to the NetzDG. According to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net (2019), five of those countries are ranked “not free” (Honduras, Venezuela, Vietnam, Russia and Belarus), five are ranked “partly free” (Kenya, India, Singapore, Malaysia and Philippines), and only three ranked “free” (France, UK and Australia). Most of these countries have explicitly referred to the NetzDG as a justification for restricting online speech. Moreover, several of these countries, including Venezuela, Vietnam, India, Russia, Malaysia, and Kenya, require intermediaries to remove vague categories of content that include “fake news”, “defamation of religions”, “anti-government propaganda” and “hate speech” that can be abused to target political dissent.
“Authoritarian states are copy-pasting illiberal laws designed by liberal democracies. Whereas Germany’s initial goal was to curb hate online, the NetzDG has provided a blueprint for Internet censorship that is being used to target dissent and pluralism. This development creates a regulatory race to the bottom that undermines freedom of expression as guaranteed by international human rights standards” says Jacob Mchangama, Executive Director of Justitia and co-author of the report.
The report is also featured in Foreign Policy: Germany’s Online Crackdowns Inspire the World’s Dictators