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Alarming new legislation in Canada, worsening repression in Hong Kong, and online global takedowns emerging from India

Phrase "Free Speech Dispatch" in white set against a black background

Censorship doesn’t respect borders. 

The threats to free speech in one country, and the conditions or events that cultivate them, can grow into regional or global censorship campaigns, from suppression of commentary about the Israel-Hamas war to the silencing of exiled critics of the Russian and Chinese governments. Even voices in ostensibly free countries can be stifled. 

That’s why FIRE is launching the Free Speech Dispatch, a new series covering some of the censorship trends and challenges around the world. In each edition, we’ll help readers glean a better understanding of the global free speech landscape. 

In this entry, we’ll look at some long-developing censorship trends that have been worsening or even expanding outside their country or area of origin, and we’ll examine some eyebrow-raising legislation to the north of the United States.

Oh, Canada …

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau standing before a row of Canadian flags
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

new bill purportedly intended to combat harmful content and child victimization on the internet is raising red flags for advocates worried about the breadth of the bill and the changes it will make to Canada’s criminal code and the Canadian Human Rights Act. 

A number of provisions within the Online Harms Act are cause for serious concern. It would update the criminal code, for example, so that “[e]very person who advocates or promotes genocide is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for life,” a charge currently punishable by “a term of not more than five years.” 

The past few months alone should make crystal clear the perils of criminalizing the promotion or advocacy of genocide, especially with the potential for such punitive consequences. 

It’s not uncommon to see both supporters and critics of Israel’s military action in Gaza face accusations of supporting genocide. Does chanting “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free” amount to advocacy for genocide? What about offering a speaking invitation to a “hawkish” IDF combat reservist? It may depend on who you ask and whether you asked the question an hour ago or a year ago. When it comes to discussion of major geopolitical events, war, terrorism, and violence, governments that seek to protect the right to free expression can and should punish speech that crosses the line into incitement or true threats. 

But they must also understand that laws governing expression must account for the turbulence and complexity of ever-changing political debates. Failing to do so risks a chilling effect or the outright censorship of vital discussions about current events. 

Canadian officials should reconsider these and other provisions of the bill, and other countries seeking to address online child victimization and threats of violence should be careful not to repeat this legislation’s errors.

Another worrying provision in the bill is its proposals to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act so that “to communicate or cause to be communicated hate speech” online when “likely to foment detestation or vilification of an individual or group of individuals on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination” would be classified as “a discriminatory practice.” The recommended revisions to the act also suggest that past expression would qualify “so long as the hate speech remains public and the person can remove or block access to it,” presumably meaning old posts that remain online could be fair game.

The bill then calls for the establishment of a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to investigate complaints of discriminatory practices which, as defined earlier, include the communication of online hate speech. The tribunal would have the power to order those found responsible to “cease the discriminatory practice” and prevent it from occurring again, provide “compensation of not more than $20,000 to any victim identified in the communication that constituted the discriminatory practice,” and pay large potential fines to the government. Affixing such a potentially large price tag to a vaguely-defined hate speech provision could no doubt chill online speech.

These are far from the only troubling provisions the proposed online harms legislation puts forth, and it’s evident that this bill that promises to address harms caused by speech on the internet will instead risk creating a new set of problems offline

This legislation is currently at its second reading in the House of Commons. Canadian officials should reconsider these and other provisions of the bill, and other countries seeking to address online child victimization and threats of violence should be careful not to repeat this legislation’s errors.

Crushing dissent in Hong Kong

In 2020, Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong, plunging a knife into the heart of Hong Kong’s energetic human rights and pro-democracy protest movement. As FIRE has highlighted repeatedly, the law wasn’t just meant to punish activists within the city — it was also written intentionally to threaten Beijing’s critics around the world. 

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And now, nearly four years later, the city has speedily pushed through its own version of a national security law, the Safeguarding National Security Bill, in just 11 days. The bill claims to address crimes like treason and espionage but will target much more and, like its predecessor, will undoubtedly be used to diminish what’s left of dissent in Hong Kong. The legislation criminalizes “an act, word or publication that has a seditious intention,” which includes “an intention to bring a Chinese citizen, Hong Kong permanent resident or a person in the HKSAR into hatred, contempt or disaffection” against government institutions in mainland China and Hong Kong. 

It also seeks to punish activists who have left Hong Kong and their financial supporters and bans organizations the secretary for security believes may harm Hong Kong’s national security. Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a member of the Executive Council of Hong Kong, has even warned that priests who hear confessions from alleged violators of Hong Kong’s national security law will risk charges themselves should they fail to report them to authorities. 

There are seemingly no limits to where Hong Kong and Chinese authorities will pursue their critics — even abroad, and even in the confessional.

Indian court ruling with global consequences

Free expression faces a range of threats in India today, including censorship of students and academics, crackdowns on online speech, and increasingly strained freedom of the press. But what’s notable isn’t just the fact that free speech is on the decline in India — it’s also beginning to affect what people outside India can say and see. This is part of an increasingly worrying trend of authoritarian speech policies dictating how companies act on a global scale, not just within the countries dictating those laws.

That trend intensified in recent weeks with the development that news outlet Reuters took down a deeply researched report, “How an Indian Startup Hacked the World,” about Appin, an Indian company it accused of acting as a “hack for hire.” As I wrote for FIRE’s Newsdesk last month, the Association of Appin Training Centers, a group claiming to be associated with Appin, obtained a court order against Reuters in December 2023, forcing the outlet to take down the piece. 

India Map on technology abstract background

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Reuters complied, and in doing so took the piece down globally rather than using geo-blocking tools to limit access only within India. And the AOATC took this court order and ran with it, telling outlets in other countries, who were not named in the suit or involved in the litigation, that they should remove their coverage of AOATC. Contemporaneously, the co-founder of Appin, Rajat Khare, has been operating an effort to pressure outlets to remove reporting about himself and Appin — with the assistance of American defamation firm Clare Locke LLP. 

In some cases, this global censorship campaign is working. Even the Internet Archive removed its copy of Reuters’ report on Appin after receiving a letter from Khare’s attorneys.

It’s alarming on its own that a court order in India managed to make waves far beyond the borders of India and the named parties in the lawsuit. But what’s even more worrying is what this may signal for the future of free expression on the internet, where legal protections for speech in one country may ultimately do little to protect against threats to speech from another. 

Keep an eye out for our next installment of the Free Speech Dispatch. 

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