From the Great Firewall of China to the huge fines Germany has levied against social media giants for hosting hate speech, governments around the world are tightening their grip on the internet. The island of Mauritius is now debating a law that would represent a drastic acceleration of this trend. If it’s not opposed, the momentum will build—and threaten an open, rights-respecting internet.
Over the past several years, digital rights advocates have rightly worried over the implications of new social media laws in countries like Turkey and Vietnam. Supposedly designed to rein in disinformation and other harmful speech, these laws represent significant new intrusions on peoples’ rights to free expression and privacy. Oppressive laws are objectionable everywhere, but we expect them from autocratic regimes.
Mauritius, however, is a different story. It is a small country, with a population of just 1.3 million, but it has an advanced economy and is often held up among its fellow African Union members as a model democracy. That’s what makes the proposal from the country’s telecom regulator so worrying. It seeks to route all social media web traffic through government proxy servers, allowing it to be cached, searched, surveilled, and blocked. Malicious hackers often use a similar tactic, known as a “man in the middle” attack. In Mauritius’ case, the attack would be open, permanent, and sanctioned by domestic law. Prior to the Mauritian government’s proposal, the only country to have explored a similar technical mechanism to control internet speech was Kazakhstan in 2019—and under international pressure, that law was never implemented.
The Mauritian government argues that this intrusion on its citizens is merited because social media companies are not adequately responsive to their demands for content takedowns. It wants a government-appointed body to do the blocking while also spying on every post, message, and search. There is no reason to think that this is anything other than an authoritarian power grab. The ruling party in Mauritius has demonstrated itself to be all too willing to go after the opposition. During the 2019 general election, the state-owned Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation was credibly accused of violating neutrality and impartiality requirements. Election results were challenged in nearly half of the country’s electoral districts, but 18 months later the courts have yet to decide any single case. After the elections in 2014, the outgoing prime minister was arrested, but all 11 criminal charges against him were struck out. The authorities sought to arrest the director of public prosecutions, and when they failed due to the timely intervention of a Supreme Court judge, the government attempted to amend the constitution to provide for a Prosecution Commission that could overrule him. Over the past year, elected Members of Parliament have been suspended on multiple occasions.
Moreover, this isn’t the first time the state’s media authority has gotten involved. In 2018, the government amended the Information and Communication Technologies Act to criminalize messages that were “obscene, indecent, abusive, threatening, false or misleading” or were “likely to cause … annoyance, humiliation, inconvenience, distress or anxiety.” The government has used this vague language to persecute its critics, arresting individuals for retweeting cartoons or video clips about politicians. Last year, the state’s media authority suspended the license of a popular private radio station, and an attempt at a second suspension following comments critical of the government’s foreign policy was stayed by the Supreme Court. The proposed social media law would compound the government’s ability to profile the opposition, limit open political debate, and blacklist citizens who have publicly criticized its activity from applying for public sector roles.
Despite the quick release of a Mauritius VPN app (Virtual Private Network) by a local company to counter this, the checks on this power are woefully inadequate. The proposal would establish an administrative body to define what speech would be blocked, the National Digital Ethics Committee. While earlier laws—for example, in Germany and France—impose enormous fines on social media companies if they don’t take down content quickly, their applicability is limited to relatively narrow categories of illegal content. By contrast, the National Digital Ethics Committee would exercise broad discretion—likely with influence from the executive branch—to draw the boundaries of “harmful” speech well beyond what is already illegal.
Moreover, there will be no functional judicial oversight. Today in Mauritius, as a general rule the executive branch of government needs to obtain a court order to access private data. Under this proposal, the government-appointed committee would be able to obtain access to any information it judged to be “social media” without going before a judge. The draft also bypasses the free speech protections under the Mauritian Constitution. While Mauritius provides its citizens with an enforceable right to free expression, the language of the constitution allows a person to waive it. In this case, users would waive their free speech by installing the security certificate the government would require, or simply forfeit access to social media sites.
Just as the internet allows for trends to circle the globe in a matter of hours, so too have internet governance laws in one jurisdiction proved influential elsewhere. The German NetzDG, which imposes huge fines for failure to quickly remove illegal content, is a good example. Laws modeled on NetzDG, but in many cases more expansive, have since been considered or passed in at least 13 countries such as Venezuela, Kenya, Australia, Russia, India and Philippines. This is a concrete example of how limitations on users’ rights in one country give cover to other, sometimes less free regimes in other countries to pass laws that grant legitimacy to unlawful and disproportionate actions.
A law that would allow the government the unchecked authority to block content it disapproves and to surveil its citizens by intercepting and decrypting their internet traffic has no place in a free society.