Mexican law would liberalize telecoms, but critics spy censorship

Mexico says measures to track cell phone calls and censor websites are important for fighting cyberattacks, kidnappings, and other crimes. But opponents fear an online clampdown.

Alexandre Meneghini/AP
Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto (c.) waves to the public after an event to sign an agreement with the three major political parties that would create two new national television channels, at the Technological Museum in Mexico City, March 11, 2013. Nieto proposed sweeping constitutional reforms last year, tackling topics from ending the state oil monopoly to increasing competition in the telecommunications sector.

Over a thousand people, many of them students, gathered on the steps of Mexico City’s Angel of Independence monument this week to protest a telecommunications bill they say amounts to government censorship.

“They’re trying to silence our voices and our freedom of expression on the Internet,” says Natalie Ollivier, who had an X drawn over her mouth in ink, while the crowd behind her Tuesday night chanted, “No a la censura,” or “no to censorship.”

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed sweeping constitutional reforms last year, tackling topics from ending the state oil monopoly to increasing competition in the telecommunications sector. The initial telecom proposal was lauded for its aim to open the market to greater foreign investment, create new all-access TV stations, and implement stricter competition rules in order to offer consumers better prices and access to phone, Internet, and TV services.

President Peña Nieto last month sent a 500-page telecom bill to the Senate that fleshed out the so-called secondary legislation that determines how the reforms will actually play out, but some of the bill’s provisions are sparking concerns. Opponents say the proposed law would allow the government to block cell phone signals during protests, censor websites, and track cell phone communications in the interest of national security. It’s a sensitive topic, as Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) controlled Mexico for 71 straight years until 2000, and some fear these provisions could signal a step back toward a more authoritarian style of government.

“The Mexican government is spending a lot of effort and money to build an international image as a reformer, democratic government [but] that’s totally at odds with what we are living in Mexico,” says Luis F. Garcia, a lawyer with the Digital Rights Defense Network. “What we are seeing is a return of the old PRI.”

The bill’s problems arise from its vague language, says Manuel Alejandro Guerrero, a professor and political communications researcher at Mexico City’s Universidad Iberoamericana. There’s a requirement that telecom companies give authorities requested user geolocation information, without a court order, which Prof. Guerrero views as a potential human rights violation. 

The President’s spokesperson said the provisions were intended to aid in fighting kidnappings, cyberattacks, and other crimes, however, he indicated the problematic clauses would be deleted.

The confluence of privacy and technology has become an increasingly hot topic in Latin America following national security leaks by Edward Snowden indicating that presidents and citizens in the region were allegedly tracked by the US National Security Agency. Brazil yesterday signed a law that aims to protect online privacy and consumer protection, and Mexico’s telecom bill’s provisions went viral this week as hashtags like #EPNvsInternet trended on Twitter, and a video uploaded to YouTube on April 20 speaking out against the bill garnered hundreds of thousands of views. An open letter to Mexico’s Congress charges that the initiative “threatens freedom of expression, net neutrality, as well as the right to access opportune and plural information through the Internet.”

During Tuesday’s march from the independence monument to the Senate, some protestors carried roses to signify a peaceful demonstration, while others lifted black flags to represent “Mexico in mourning” over threats to free expression. Architecture student Willebaldo Heredia Garcia held a sign reading “a hashtag represents us better than a legislator.”

The government “needs to understand that [censorship] is not the way to control us or to avoid hearing negative opinions,” Mr. Heredia says.

In response to the criticisms, a Senate commission presented a new version of the bill that cut out the provision on blocking cell phone signals but left other contentious elements intact.

Another protest is scheduled for Saturday, where demonstrators plan to form a miles-long human chain between the presidential residence, Los Pinos, and the offices of media company (and perceived Peña Nieto ally) Televisa.

Despite what he considers worrisome legislation, Mr. Guerrero says the protests this week have inspired him. “This kind of public expression of discontent would have been unthinkable before,” he says, referring to the days when the PRI was last in power. “Society has changed. If some members of the political class want a return to the old ways, it won’t work very well.”

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