A global cybercrime treaty that has backing from countries including Russia, China and Venezuela is concerning some democracies and civil liberty organizations.
A list of countries with authoritarian leadership and poor records on human rights and press freedom are among the original supporters of a United Nations global treaty, the final points of which are set to be negotiated in New York in August.
The treaty — first suggested by Russia in 2017 — is supposed to define what constitutes cybercrime and could lay the groundwork for member states to introduce new laws.
Its stated aim is to combat global cybercrime. But the United States and other Western countries raised issues, including that the treaty may enable state surveillance and censorship under the guise of fighting cybercrime.
At first glance, an international treaty on cybercrime might seem like a good idea, said Barbora Bukovska, who works at the free expression group Article 19.
“But this treaty is about much more than fighting online scams, cyberattacks and other crimes committed through digital technology,” Bukovska said. “The draft follows a trend of cybercrime laws that are used to attack freedom of expression, undermine privacy and exert control over our legitimate online activities.”
“It might also have real consequences for journalists, dissidents, human rights defenders, and civil society,” the London-based expert said.
This treaty is just one example of the ways in which authoritarian governments are working to manipulate legal mechanisms to target journalists and others in a process that is known as lawfare, say media rights groups.
The current draft lacks human rights safeguards and would give countries broad surveillance powers that could target reporters and opposition voices, experts have said.
The ad hoc committee charged with drafting the convention — made up of several states, including the U.S., Russia and China — did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment for this story.
The treaty has been in the works since 2017, when Russia first proposed it with the stated goal of combating cybercrime.
In 2019, the U.N. passed a resolution to establish a convention to combat cybercrime.
But the U.S. and the European Union opposed that resolution, citing concerns that it was an attempt to facilitate state control of the internet.
That same year, Moscow introduced its “sovereign internet” law, giving the government sweeping abilities to block content and prosecute people who post content online.
And while the U.N. negotiation process has been lengthy, talks began to crystallize in 2022, and next month countries will start article-by-article negotiations.
Governments globally have examined how cybercrime threatens national security and benefits organized crime groups — but many Western countries and digital rights groups are doubtful that this treaty is part of the solution.
Several groups, including the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, oppose the treaty but are taking part in the negotiations to try to mitigate potentially harmful provisions.
The latest draft is an improvement, rights experts said. For example, previous versions openly criminalized certain speech as cybercrime just because it was posted online.
Some governments have already used many of those provisions in their own laws — including “extremism-related offenses,” distributing materials “motivated by political, ideological, social, racial, ethnic or religious hatred,” and “the spreading of strife, sedition, hatred or racism” — to target journalists and silence dissent.
Katitza Rodriguez, who works at Electronic Frontier Foundation, is wary that even though content-related offenses are no longer explicit in the treaty, one draft article still refers to crimes defined by other unspecified applicable treaties.
“This could be a back door for bringing content-crimes and non-cybercrime back into the scope of the treaty by invoking other applicable treaties and protocols,” Rodriguez said.
Other worries pertain to surveillance and the omission of human rights safeguards.
The treaty overall could “give repressive governments even more tools for targeting and muzzling the press,” the Vienna-based rights group International Press Institute said in a July statement. “The lack of such safeguards puts journalists and civil society at risk of increased surveillance by governments.”
The current draft, for example, encourages information-sharing to scrutinize the use of “concealing activities,” Article 19’s Bukovska said. That provision could provide authoritarian governments with powers to investigate and block the use of encrypted chat services like Signal, anonymous browsers and routing tools like VPNs.
“These are the very means that human rights defenders, journalists, dissidents, and civil society use in their vital work,” Bukovska said.
Another concern is the question of dual criminality: a principle that says a country shouldn’t extradite someone for something it doesn’t recognize as a crime. But Rodriguez says the current treaty treats dual criminality as optional, not mandatory.
“This rule is incredibly important for protecting free expression and dissent, and for preventing a country from automatically applying its laws everywhere in the world,” she said.
Even though some democratic countries are likely to maintain their commitment to human rights, regardless of what happens with the treaty, experts say this is still a global issue.
“If you introduce this into the international system, it’s going to be even more abused against journalists,” Bukovska said.
Pending negotiations, the convention is slated to be adopted in January 2024, but that date could be extended, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Once the treaty is adopted, it would go to states to be ratified on the national level.