The efforts of authoritarian states to suppress dissent are not territorially limited. Over the past few years, there have been many notable cases of transnational repression—states applying repressive policies to silence or coerce nationals located outside their territorial borders—including the Saudi killing of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey,1 the assassination of Rwandan opposition members and dissidents in South Africa and elsewhere,2 and the harassment and intimidation of Chinese dissidents in Canada and the United States.3 While transnational repression is not a new phenomenon, such tactics are expanding through the market growth for digital technologies and the spread of Internet-connectivity, among other factors.4 This digital dimension of transnational repression—which we refer to as digital transnational repression—is rapidly becoming the cornerstone of ‘everyday’ transnational repression and is a threat to the rights and freedoms of dissidents and activists living in exile.
In this report, we describe how Canadian activists and dissidents living in exile in Canada are impacted by digital transnational repression. We conclude that digital transnational repression has a serious impact on these communities, including their ability to undertake transnational advocacy work related to human rights. Yet, there is little support for victims who experience such targeting and policy efforts to date have been insufficient. This is a troubling finding considering that the Canadian government purports to welcome migrants and refugees to Canada and has made the promotion of democracy and human rights a cornerstone of its political platform. While the government has begun to address the threat of “foreign interference” in Canada—a term broad enough to capture digital transnational repression—its focus has primarily been on digital threats related to Canadian democratic institutions, economic interests, and critical infrastructure. The protection of the rights and freedoms of migrants and refugees appears to be of little concern.
In light of this policy deficit, the threat to democracy and human rights, and the impact digital transnational repression has on Canadian communities, we make a series of recommendations for the Canadian government where concrete action could be taken to address digital transnational repression. These recommendations include:
- Issuing official statements against digital transnational repression and taking practical action to deter such activities, such as: deploying targeted sanctions, strengthening export controls for dual-use technologies, reviewing foreign sovereign immunity law, pursuing criminal prosecutions, and ensuring that the Canadian government’s own use of digital surveillance technology is transparent and in compliance with international human rights law.
- Providing support to the victims of digital transnational repression by creating a dedicated government agency to address the issue of transnational repression in Canada, instituting a dedicated hotline or reporting mechanism, and undertaking community outreach efforts to better understand the scale of the problem and how to address it.
- Improving coordination across Canadian government bodies, training government officials in identifying, addressing, and responding to digital transnational repression, and providing greater resources for community organizations to address such threats.
- Requiring transparency from technology companies regarding how they respond to government requests to remove content or access user information, engaging with these entities to understand how they address digital transnational repression and what other measures have to be taken, and examining the role of business actors more broadly (for example, social media companies as well as other private sector facilitators such as domain registrars, web hosting companies, and other companies whose technology is used in undertaking digital transnational repression) to determine whether new regulation is required to address their role.
In Section 1 of the report, we introduce traditional mechanisms of transnational repression and the exercise of extraterritorial authoritarianism. In Section 2, we review existing research on how digital transnational repression manifests itself and impacts activists and dissidents in exile. In Section 3, we summarize findings drawn from interviews we conducted with activists and dissidents who moved or fled to Canada from their country of origin and who were targeted with various forms of digital transnational repression in Canada. In closing, in Section 4, we set out a series of recommendations to the Canadian government to begin addressing digital transnational repression.
- BBC News, “Jamal Khashoggi: All You Need To Know About the Saudi Journalist’s Death” (24 February 2021) BBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-45812399 (‘BBC News, Jamal Khashoggi’).↩
- DW, “Rwanda: The Mysterious Deaths of Political Opponents” (15 September 2021) DW. Retrieved from: https://www.dw.com/en/rwanda-the-mysterious-deaths-of-political-opponents/a-59182275; BBC News, “Rwandan Seif Bamporiki Killed in South Africa,” (22 February 2021) BBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-56119088.↩
- Catherine Porter, “Chinese Dissidents Feel Heat of Beijing’s Wrath. Even in Canada” (1 April 2019) New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/01/world/canada/china-dissident-harassment-sheng-xue.html.↩
- In this report, we consider transnational digital repression to include anything from social media harassment campaigns (such as public, semi-public, or private harassment on Twitter or Facebook) or online messaging and communications platforms (such as WhatsApp or Skype) to the use of sophisticated spyware and malware. In all cases, these activities feature a digital technology component whether on the part of governments or those targeted by them.↩