Treaty endorsing state internet control passes UN hurdle

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The United Nations has taken the first step toward enacting a cybercrime treaty that could justify human rights violations where internet access is controlled by authoritarian regimes.

In November, the UN voted to support the Russia-sponsored treaty. The resolution has been backed by countries like China, North Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Syria. Critics say the proposed treaty would empower authoritarian governments to enforce state control of the internet.

The results of the vote were 88 for, 58 against, and 34 absent. A final vote in the UN General Assembly will be held in December.

If the resolution is approved, a committee will meet in August 2020 to draft terms of reference to direct the writing of a treaty.

Russian authorities say the new treaty aims to be “inclusive” and respectful of countries’ sovereignty while characterizing it as a necessary counterweight to the US-led Budapest Convention, which was ratified in 2001. 

Russia and China refused to endorse the Budapest Convention, which called for international cooperation in combating cybercrime. 

Critical voices from the EU and the US argue that Russia’s new treaty is more likely to legitimize authoritarian internet control and the pursuit of dissidents than to counter cybercrime, much of which is of Russian origin. 

Meanwhile, Russia has enacted the “sovereign internet” law, under which the government is empowered to pursue a massive infrastructure-development project that will let them cut off their connection to the rest of the world, running the internet internally, entirely within Russian borders.

The UN vote prompted an open letter from 36 international civil rights groups stating that the resolution is “fundamentally flawed and would restrict the use of the internet for human rights, and social and economic development.” 

One of the possible outcomes of the treaty is the criminalization of encrypted chat apps and other common online activities, generally disrupting people’s rights online and offline.