Human rights groups fear that a proposed UN treaty on cybercrime being negotiated at New York City this week — the first draft is due September 1 — will strengthen the authoritarian digital rule of Russia and Communist China and threaten American national security.
The suggestion that countries rewrite their criminal laws comes from the UN’s Ad Hoc Committee on Cybercrime, which is holding its sixth session this week. Its goal is ostensibly to “promote and strengthen measures to prevent and combat cybercrime more efficiently and effectively,” according to a draft text released in May.
This scheme, though, is garnering growing concern. America, for starters, is not a member of the committee. Critics, more generally, are warning that without strong safeguards for online speech and internet privacy, the landmark treaty threatens, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation puts it in a press release, the “fundamental rights of millions of people, in particular journalists, activists, and people and groups who face discrimination and marginalization.”
Among its other faults, according to the critics, the draft treaty does not offer a definition of cybercrime. “We have been calling to keep it quite narrow to cybercrime,” a digital rights advocate at Human Rights Watch, Deborah Brown, tells the Sun. “I don’t see a clear focus. How do they even define cybercrime?”
The draft preamble discusses states’ concerns about the impact of computer systems on a broad range of criminal offenses, such as “terrorism,” “trafficking in persons, smuggling of migrants,” and “drug trafficking and trafficking in cultural property.”
Critics note that under the text’s article 17, states could interpret this guidance to justify cross-border collecting and sharing of evidence of crimes that exceed the scope of the text, recasting non-cybercrimes and speech-related offenses as cybercrimes. The EFF is fighting to remove this article from the text.
“This treaty is really all about legitimizing internet censorship by authoritarian regimes,” a research fellow studying Russian security strategies and influence operations at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Ivana Stradner, tells the Sun.
The UN members who lead the charge on so-called cybercrime on the committee, Russia and China, are seeking to “destroy the liberal international order,” says Ms. Stradner.
“The unelected UN is the new EU. It wants an international cybercrime treaty and it will trample on our democratic rights if we agree,” the foreign affairs office of the Independence Party of the United Kingdom said in a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
The United Nations has discussed issues related to information security since 1998, when the Russian Federation initiated a draft resolution on the subject at the General Assembly. In 2017, Russia presented a letter on cybercrime in particular, paving the way for the General Assembly to establish two years later the committee to combat criminal activity online, joined by 17 co-sponsors from Asia, South America, and Africa.
America’s hands-off UN approach allowed President Putin to shore up support of other member states, Ms. Stradner says. Moscow “noticed that the Trump administration wanted to be absent from the United Nations, which opened new opportunities for Russia to rally their allies and to get enough votes to pass that resolution.”
While Russia lost allies following its Ukraine invasion, it maintains the strong support of China, which has a powerful presence at Turtle Bay.
The treaty’s “champions are some of the world’s most repressive governments,” Human Rights Watch added in a statement. Intense domestic internet policies in China and Russia offer signs of how the treaty could undermine digital rights in the rest of the world, it said.
In recent years, the Kremlin has invested tremendous resources in creating a sovereign internet service called RuNet. It also effectively banned the use of virtual private networks known as VPNs, sharply curtailing online free expression. Those who fail to use the phrase “special military operation” in reference to the Ukraine war in online communications, for example, face up to 15 years of imprisonment.
Meanwhile, China has ratcheted up regulations over online content and communications and was recently tied to an unprecedented influence campaign involving thousands of fake accounts on Facebook.
While the current draft of the treaty is more aligned with Western interests than prior versions, Ms. Strander says no treaty will stop Mr. Putin and President Xi from using information as a weapon to peddle misinformation campaigns in the tug-of-war between autocracy and democracy.