Abusive Governments (And The Criminals They Employ) Are Going To LOVE The UN’s Cybercrime Treaty

Various treaties and multi-national proposals to combat cybercrime have been around for years. I’m not exaggerating. These have been floating around for more than a decade. (Do you want to feel old? This cybercrime treaty proposal would be old enough to legally obtain a social media account in the United States if it were still viable.)
The UN has been pushing its own version. But its idea of “crime” seems off-base, especially when it’s dealing with a conglomerate of countries with varying free speech protections. The “Cybercrime Treaty” proposed by the UN focuses on things many would consider ugly, distasteful, abhorrent, or even enraging. But it’s not things most people consider to be the sort of “crimes” a unified world front should be addressing — not when there’s plenty of financially or personally damaging cybercrime being performed on the regular.
As Mike Masnick noted last year, the UN’s proposal aims to regulate speech, even if its stated ends are making the internet safer for everyone. The treaty would target “hate speech,” an often ill-defined term that encompasses everything from targeted attacks to shitposting to honest criticism that just happens to criticize things the government likes: things like preferred religions, citizens, ceremonies, holidays, or political figures.
It’s built for abuse. A year has passed and the UN’s “Cybercrime Treaty” doesn’t appear to have improved. While there’s stuff in there targeting actual criminal activity, there are still plenty of mandates just waiting to be abused by governments to target people they don’t like.
The EFF has an extensive rundown on the treaty’s modifications, most of which just make things worse for everyone if they’re enacted. And that begins with the treaty’s beginnings. The priorities have been disrupted.

Rather than focusing on core cybercrimes like network intrusion and computing system interference, the draft treaty’s emphasis on content-related crimes could likely result in overly broad and easily abused laws that stifle free expression and association rights of people around the world.
For example, the draft U.N.Cybercrime Treaty includes provisions that could make it a crime to humiliate a person and group, or insult a religion using a computer. This potentially makes it a crime to send or post legitimate content protected under international law.

Even computer-focused criminal laws have been regularly abused by governments (holla back CFAA!). This one sidesteps this focus to target computer users who aren’t trying to engage in criminal activity. They’re just being assholes. But give a questionable government a tool like this to use, and it will ensure it treats any criticism as a form of hate speech if it can, silencing dissent and preemptively silencing those who might have been considering speaking up. As the EFF points out, most human rights abusers come from countries with state religions and this law would allow them to ramp up the oppression they already offer to residents they don’t care for.
Sure, the UN has attached a caveat warning countries considering abusing the treaty from abusing the treaty. But if we’ve learned nothing else about the United Nations during its nearly 70-year run as a Manhattan property owner, it’s that it’s pretty much incapable of deterring any government from doing anything it truly wants to do.
That’s why this is a problem. Like anything else with horrendous unintended consequences, the treaty is well-meaning. But it’s also a toolbox for autocrats and oppressive regimes. And they know it. There are enough dissenters who love everything bad about the proposal to derail the treaty unless even the most minimum of protections for the governed are removed.

[T]he draft U.N.Cybercrime Treaty introduces vague provisions that will compel states to pass laws authorizing the use of overly broad spying powers without these safeguards—placing people at an increased risk of harm, and curtailing civil liberties and defendants’ fair trial rights. Even worse, during draft treaty negotiations, countries including India, Russia, China, Iran, Syria, and Tonga proposed amendments to remove Article 5, a general clause that emphasizes respect for human rights and references international human rights obligations. Rubbing salt into the wound, Egypt, Singapore, Malaysia, Pakistan, Oman, Iran, and Russia requested the deletion of even the most modest limitations on government spying powers, Article 42, on conditions and safeguards. 

Going hand-in-hand with the partial stripping of rights in many nations around the world is the mandated expansion of surveillance nearly everywhere in the free world. To keep an eye on people saying mean things to each other, governments will need more access to more internet communications, something the UN is apparently cool with mandating. And the proposal is open-ended, preemptively blessing surveillance techniques that haven’t even been designed, much less brought to market.

The draft treaty also oddly refers to allowing authorities to use “special investigative techniques,” again without ever defining what those are. The current language, indeed, could allow any type of surveillance technology—from malware to IMSI catchers, machine learning prediction, and other mass surveillance tools—as well as any tool or technique that may exist in the future.

If the UN wants oppressive countries to stop pretending it’s only now they’re taking their gloves off, this Cybercrime Treaty is exactly what’s needed. If it really wants to stop cybercrime, it should focus more on universally recognized computer crimes, rather than speech that, while terrible, is still protected. And it definitely should rewrite the proposal with an eye on the unintended consequences, because it’s those consequences that will contribute the most to the inevitable abuse of this treaty.


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