The German Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) continues to inspire authoritarian and illiberal internet censorship around the world. In under a year, the number of countries copy-pasting the NetzDG matrix to provide cover and legitimacy for digital censorship and repression has almost doubled to a total of 25, a new analysis from the civil liberties think tank Justitia´s Future of Free Speech project shows.
Jacob Mchangama, director of Justitia and the Future of Free Speech project, says: “We are witnessing a deeply worrying trend where governments, both democratic but mostly authoritarian, are introducing measures to combat vaguely defined categories of hate speech and fake news by placing responsibility on the social media platforms for user content. The Network Enforcement law and its imitators create big incentives for social media companies to over-regulate online speech and risk pushing extremists towards platforms that are even harder to survey. Even if there are good reasons to counter online hate speech and disinformation, the approach prototyped by the German NetzDG law will exacerbate the decade-long global free speech recession which is part and parcel of the wider democratic recession.”
“Once democracies cede the high ground and renege on their commitment to free speech by privatizing and outsourcing regulation, authoritarians will rush in creating a regulatory race to the bottom. This entails severe and negative consequences for free speech, independent media, the vibrancy of civil society and political pluralism, without which authoritarianism cannot be defeated, nor democracy protected,” says Jacob Mchangama.
On the findings in the report
Germany´s Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) was introduced in 2017 and is the most prominent weapon in the online arsenal of democracies to counter illegal online speech. NetzDG obliges social media platforms to remove illegal content within 24 hours or risk huge fines, and to date several million items on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube have been reported in Germany, leading to deletion of hundreds of thousands of posts, comments and opinions.
This report is an updated version of the 2019 report entitled ‘The Digital Berlin Wall: How Germany (Accidentally) Created a Prototype for Global Online Censorship.’ The 2019 report found a lively cross-fertilisation of Germany’s Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) to 13 countries around the globe plus the European Union. According to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report (2019), five of those countries were ranked “not free” (Honduras, Venezuela, Vietnam, Russia and Belarus), five were ranked “partly free” (Kenya, India, Singapore, Malaysia and Philippines), and only three ranked “free” (France, UK and Australia).
In the 2020 update, Justitia has found that the concerning trend has continued beyond our first reporting period. The number of countries adopting intermediary liability laws broadly similar to the NetzDG (or aspects thereof) has almost doubled, since NetzDG has impacted the development of laws in 12 new countries. Worryingly, according to Freedom House’s reports on Freedom on the Net/Press Freedom, only 1 of the new countries is free (Austria), 7 are “partly free” (Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, Cambodia, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan and Brazil) and 4 are “not free” (Egypt, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Turkey).
This report contains an analysis of the developments in each of the above countries as well as updated on relevant developments, where applicable, in the 13 countries (plus the EU) identified in the initial report.
Jacob Mchangama says
“The fact that Erdogan’s Turkey – one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists – is citing NetzDG as inspiration for its new draconian law on “The Regulation of Publications made in the Internet Environment” should send a clear warning signal to democracies that this model is a good faith effort gone bad.
But there are also a few positive developments. France’s so called Avia-law was recently declared unconstitutional for violating freedom of expression and Malaysia has repealed its law against fake news. The big test for online free expression will be the European Commission’s draft Digital Services Act (DSA). If the DSA is based on the NetzDG model, the world’s largest group of democracies will have set a terrible precedent for how to police online platforms sure to be followed by even more authoritarian states in the future.”
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The Future of Free Speech is a collaboration between Justitia, Columbia University’s Global Freedom of Expression and Aarhus University’s Department of Political Science. The aim is to build a global culture of free speech through knowledge, research, and advocacy.