Last year saw some curious laws regarding the internet. Several countries made somewhat questionable moves in an attempt to regulate users’ freedom online — some in more extreme ways than others.
Here are some of the laws from different countries that were discussed by cybersecurity experts and human rights activists last year:
On January 1, 2019, Vietnam passed a law that raised some concerns among cybersecurity experts. Some compare Vietnam’s new regulation to China’s internet governance regime, which is marked by censorship, pervasive internet control, and surveillance. For example, the law allows Vietnamese authorities to delete or block access to data, inspect computer systems, and criminalize propaganda against the official government. Even though the official aim of this law is to help to better protect the country from foreign cybersecurity threats, it gives more power to the Vietnamese government to monitor or even block access to information.
On November 1, 2019, Russia’s “sovereign internet” law went into effect. This law enables Russia to disconnect their internet from the rest of the world. In December 2019, Russia successfully tested it. RuNet would essentially work like a gigantic intranet, similar to what large corporations have. This concerns many cybersecurity experts, as people will be kept in a bubble, unable to have a dialogue or access information from outside the country. The idea that Russian citizens will not be able to access outside information is rather worrying – essentially, RuNet could become a tool for country-wide propaganda.
China is notoriously known for censoring the internet. In 2019, their government implemented more than 60 restrictions. On January 4, 2019, China kicked off a project to take down many sites featuring content with pornography, gambling, parody, promoting “bad lifestyle”, and “bad popular culture” among many others. Later in January, China implemented even more restrictions, such as prohibiting content with “the pessimistic outlook on millennials,” “one-night stand,” “non-mainstream view of love and marriage.” In July 2019, China announced a regulation stating that users who seriously violate related laws and regulations would be subject to the Social Credit System blacklist. And even if some of those sound reasonable, experts fear that these laws are only stepping stones for further censorship.
In December 2019, Nepal introduced the Information Technology bill, which would empower the government to censor online content, including social media. According to this bill, anyone who posts an “offensive” comment could face up to 5 years of jail time and a fine of 1.5m rupees (about $13,000). The law concerns cybersecurity and human rights experts as it restricts freedom of expression. For example, it criminalizes any content on social media, which is against “national unity, self-respect, national interest, the relationship between federal units.” The law itself contains three sections, and one of them restricts publishing such content via any electronic platform — news websites, blogs, and even sending by email. According to Freedom Forum, 38 journalists were arrested, detained, or questioned by the police in 2019, and the new IT bill might even worsen the situation.
In February 2019, Thailand’s military-appointed parliament passed a controversial law that gives sweeping powers to state cyber agencies. The government could search and seize data and equipment in cases that are deemed issues of national emergency. This could enable internet traffic monitoring and access to private data, including communications, without a court order. Given the political climate, it is concerning that the law could be weaponized by the government to silence critics.
Some regulations are necessary, but some countries tend to create overly intrusive laws that restrict freedom of expression or free access to information. Many experts worldwide agree that it often happens not only because governments want more control over their citizens, but also because lawmakers lack technical knowledge. Is our freedom of speech being jeopardized?