Fake news laws are so hot right now. Any government with an authoritarian bent is getting in on the action, stepping up domestic surveillance while trampling remaining speech protections — all in the name of “protecting” people from a concept they can’t clearly define.
It’s not just the places you expect. Sure, we may like to think this sort of opportunistic lawmaking may be relegated to places like Vietnam and Singapore, where governments have continually expressed their interest in deterring criticism of governments and kings and their shitty laws. But even our own President spends a great deal of time talking about “fake news” and the need to prevent journalists from criticizing the guy sitting in the Oval Office. And France’s government is looking at adding this to its long list of speech restrictions, even if only at “election time.”
The latest country to add a speech-squashing, government-expanding “fake news” bill to its roster of bad ideas is the Philippines. The proposal doesn’t use the terminology du jour, but “fake news” by any other name is still “fake news.” Here’s the immediate effect the “Anti-False Content Act” would have on the country’s population.
Introduced by Senator Vicente Sotto III, the bill strikes at the heart of Internet freedom, regulating if not outright policing the content of cyberspace in the Philippines. It mandates stiff prison terms and fines ranging from PHP 200,000 to PHP 2,000,000 against individuals who “create and/or publish” false and misleading content in social media sites, blogs and websites, as well as the “intermediaries” or platforms which carry the content, such as Facebook and Twitter.
Citizens are welcome to report “false content” to the government, which adds this to the tool chests of hecklers seeking a veto or online brigades wanting to put the color of law behind their deplatforming efforts. It’s “see something, say something” for the internet, which is going to turn out to be just as useless as any other iteration of “report your friends and neighbors” programs.
If citizens don’t step up, the government can initiate the complaint process itself. The three agencies authorized to do this are the Department of Justice, the National Bureau of Investigation, and the National Police. Not scary at all. If any of these entities think the public needs protecting, it can start hunting down “false content” purveyors and extracting fines from social media companies. The law affects everyone, not just users of major social media platforms. Individual blogs can be targeted, as can the nation’s news agencies.
Rather than allow more speech to act as a corrective measure, legislators want to limit speech further, ensuring the only speech remaining will be government-approved. This is bad enough, but the agencies allowed to make these judgment calls on questionable posts/publications are among the worst to be entrusted with the literal policing of speech.
The harm that false information can inflict is undeniable. But there is far greater harm in authorizing government agencies to decide what is fake or factual news, false or accurate conclusions, correct or mistaken findings. Assigning agencies who deal with criminality and violations of law guarantees a most limited scope for the arbitration of truth.
If passed, another government will have succeeded in converting buzzwords to authoritarian power moves. The world needs less of this, but it’s the rarest of governments that can see an opportunity to expand its power without acting on it.
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