On September 26, 2018, an improvised explosive device planted at the foot of a bridge exploded, killing eight soldiers in the lead vehicle of a Burkinabe military convoy traveling in northern Burkina Faso.
Enacted in 2018, Germany’s pioneering and ambitious Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) represents an important milestone in curbing online extremism. However, the law, which fines online platforms for failures to delete illegal content, has been a frequent target of misleading arguments promoted by the tech companies that oppose it.
Recently, critics are claiming that authoritarian governments across the globe are using NetzDG as a model law to curb political dissent and censor those who oppose their regime. This is nonsensical. Following through with that logic would mean that democratic governments would never enact any laws. Responsible and democratically implemented laws that regulate the tech space should not be compared to justifications given by authoritarian states to repress their own people.
Authoritarian governments establish and utilize a multitude of laws and policies to justify repressive actions against their own citizens and strengthen their rule. In 2015, China passed a thinly veiled counterterrorism law as a means to further suppress the country’s Uighur Muslim population. This year, Russia used its protest laws to sentence a peaceful activist to four years in prison. The country is more infamously known for its anti-LGBT laws that bans gay “propaganda” and denies social services to the country’s sexual and gender minorities. Myanmar’s “Official Secrets Act” resulted in seven years of imprisonment for two Reuters journalists who were investigating the alleged murder by the country’s security forces of ten Muslim men within the country.
Arguing that laws like NetzDG could inspire additional government repression allows the tech industry to deflect blame away from themselves. The claims distract from the fact that authoritarian regimes utilize the industry’s technology to advance their despotic agendas and practices. Election interference by Russia, incitement to genocide in Myanmar, and online censorship in China are, in fact, examples of authoritarian governments misusing social media platforms to achieve their own repressive goals. Democratically made laws by responsible governments do not embolden authoritarian states. Authoritarian ideologies embolden authoritarian states.
The tech sector needs to come to terms with the fact that its products are misused by illiberal regimes to censure, surveil, and repress. If the industry is truly concerned about protecting free speech and fundamental rights as it claims, it should simply not work in authoritarian repressive countries.
This is not the first time that tech has employed deceptive arguments to forestall the passage of NetzDG. Critics predicted that the German law would lead to both overreporting, therefore suppressing free speech, as well as the stifling of innovation, because smaller companies would not be able to swallow the cost of resources needed to comply with the law. Both of those arguments are proven to be baseless. In partnership with the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), a report by the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) concluded that these concerns were unfounded. Six months after NetzDG’s implementation, the law did not result in a flood of reports or over-blocking. Furthermore, the study found that the expense of implementing NetzDG was minimal at 1 percent of total revenue.
Tech’s ongoing refrain of false claims exposes the industry’s insincerity. Its latest efforts to deflect blame to liberal democracies that pass responsible laws to protect their citizens from dangerous online activity is counterproductive.
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