Democracies are copying autocrats and cracking down on free speech

BY Jake Cordell   /  11 April 2019

Autocrats have historically taken inspiration from the language of the West to justify restricting freedoms, twisting and turning policies to create the veneer of a paper democracy.

For decades, the playbook has been to take the language and veneer of Western laws or institutions designed to protect democracy, such as constitutions protecting free speech and human rights commissioners, and then twist them into a vehicle for undermining those very freedoms. It’s proved effective, providing autocracies not only with ready-made policies, but also a robust rhetorical defence against accusations of injustice.

But now, as the fight over free speech, free thought and free assembly has moved online, the trend of autocrats copying democrats has started to reverse. Instead of liberal democracies setting the rules and practices, it is self-proclaimed defenders of democracy who are copying the language and ideas of their autocratic colleagues, stretching the limits to which illiberalism can be used to defend liberty.

Perhaps the tipping point came in the shape of Russia’s notorious “Foreign Agents” law. Introduced in 2012, it has been used by the Putin regime to strangle Russian civil society by targeting any organisation funded from abroad, forcing charities and NGOs to self-identify as spies and traitors. Today, more than 70 organisations find themselves labelled a “foreign agent” by their own government and around 30 have been forced to shut down. When introduced, it seemed like a case of traditional copy-catting, with Russian advocates explicitly claiming it was modelled on the United States’ own Foreign Agents Registration Act (Fara) – 1930s-era legislation to out the secret funders of pro-Nazi propaganda. More than 200 Russian companies have been registered under Fara over the years, which requires any individual, organisation or company which is directly funded by a foreign government to declare themselves. Typically, the Russian version is much broader, and purposefully malign.

The Russian regime’s enthusiasm for reviving the “foreign agents” idea inspired many in the more democratic parts of the world to experiment. In 2016, the Israeli parliament passed its own version, even mimicking Russia’s rule that requires any organisation branded a foreign agent to prominently use the term in any public communications, such as adverts, leaflets and on their own website. Both Kyrgyzstan, one of the more open parts of the former Soviet Union, and Ukraine, a country at war with Russia, have since mulled the idea of Russian-style “foreign agents” laws. It also gained traction inside the European Union. Unsurprisingly, Viktor Orban took note, and successfully introduced a version in Hungary. More worryingly, Estonia, an undisputed democratic success story, ranked by Freedom House as a freer country than both the UK and Germany, was considering the idea just last year.

But it is in the online space, as democracies struggle to adjust their analogue set-ups for the digital era, where the anti-liberal copy-paste machine has really come into its own. Talk of hybrid warfare and disinformation campaigns have pushed policymakers to see the internet as an invisible front in a superfibre clash, pitting the US, EU and Nato against the likes of Russia, China and Iran.

“Never has Europe been in so much danger,” Emmanuel Macron declared last month in a speech setting out his plans to protect European democracy. It was not just the language of the autocrats which Macron poached. He, and other democratic leaders, have been too ready to copy their ideas and lump issues like online hate speech, fake news, media literacy, election financing, press laws and technology regulation into one big question. The answer to which, they may have concluded, is less freedom.

“We should have European rules banish all incitements to hate and violence from the Internet,” Macron said. “We should also ban the funding of European political parties by foreign powers [and create] a European Agency for the Protection of Democracies … [to protect the] election process against cyber attacks and manipulation.”

Macron’s plans would go significantly further than even the NetzDG law against fake news in Germany, which came into force at the beginning of 2018. That legislation was itself a game-changer, enabling a democratic country to levy huge fines on tech giants for failing to remove content. Criticised by Human Rights Watch, we can judge its qualities as a piece of legislation based on who praised the idea – Putin’s Russia and Duterte’s Philippines.

But the fears and plans are not new. They mimic, in rhetoric if not intent, both China’s mammoth internet censorship operation and Russia’s, less successful but equally ambitious, plans to quash online free speech. Defending plans to start ring-fencing the Russian internet, one particularly enthusiastic official said: “Legislation on the isolation of the Russian internet is needed in case the United States launches a cyber-attack.” Justifying the introduction of a law which would criminalise insulting elected officials online, he added: “The same restrictions exist in Germany and Belgium.”

China’s Xi Jinping – perhaps the world’s most successful online-repressor – has long been using similar language to that chosen by Macron. “The internet has become the main battlefield for the public opinion struggle,” Xi said in private remarks in 2013. Two years later, at the very public opening of the World Internet Congress, he warned: “No country should … interfere in other countries’ internal affairs or engage in, connive at or support cyber activities that undermine other countries’ national security.”

This is not to say the result, or even the intent, of European online regulation would be comparable to efforts in Russia or China. Nevertheless, we should take note. As democracy guru Richard Youngs said: “[Macron’s] calls for bans on certain types of online speech or external funding need to be looked at with great care: these may be justified in extreme cases but are not particularly liberal responses to illiberalism. Such bans will backfire against EU efforts to support democracy elsewhere in the world.”

The attempts to apply national laws, standards and values to the intrinsically international online environment has sharpened centuries-old debates over the balance between liberty and security. The concern is that the current framework, developed over decades of democratic compromise and law-making, is being disregarded, simply because the same conundrums have now moved online. In the haste to “defend democracy”, its most ardent supporters risk doing more harm than good.


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