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Will Mexico's Telecom Reform Hurt Internet Freedom?

On March 24, Enrique Peña Nieto presented the Mexican Senate with a bill for a new telecommunications law that complements the constitutional reforms he approved in 2013. The legislation proposes, among other things, to promote competition in the sector, improve telecom services, and regulate the radioelectric spectrum through the new telecommunications regulator, the Instituto Federal de Telecomunicaciones (Federal Telecommunications Institute—IFETEL).  The bill is now being revised, and is expected to be approved in the coming days.

However, the proposal is already raising eyebrows and creating waves in the digital sphere, where it’s being labeled as a form of government censorship.

According to Article 2 of the bill, the legislation is intended to “protect the nation’s security and sovereignty,” and the most controversial articles in the initiative are preceded by mentions of criminal prosecution and promoting the public interest. There is room for discussion on the potential effectiveness of this objective, but much like the current debate in the U.S. over the NSA’s capabilities vs. individual freedoms and privacy, citizens in Mexico are worried about ceding too much power to the federal government.  The far-reaching legislation has created a number of trending topics on Twitter, under hashtags like #EPNvsInternet #ContraElSilencioMx and #NoMasPoderAlPoder (roughly translated to #PeñaNietoV.Internet, #AgainstSilenceMx and #NoMorePowerToTheOnesInPower).

One of the most popular bloggers in Mexico, “Sopitas,” criticized Peña Nieto’s proposal by stating that social media has been the only widespread communication channel where the public can express its dissent with the current government.  On April 21, #EPNvsInternet became a worldwide trending topic on Twitter and, as these words are being written, “netizens” in Mexico City are organizing a massive demonstration at the Ángel de la Independencia monument in downtown Mexico City, which also hosted many of #YoSoy132’s protests against Peña Nieto’s alleged alliance with Televisa in the 2012 presidential elections. When the neutrality of the largest news media conglomerate in the country is in question, citizen journalism becomes crucial.

Attempts to control speech on the Internet are not new. One need only consult Global Voices’ Advocacy project to see that, when given the power to do so, governments unequivocally use Internet restriction as a means to block and control dissent.

But how would the president’s telecom law proposal trample on free speech? What are netizens protesting against? Here are some highlights:

  • Article 145, Paragraph III states that Internet Service Providers (ISP) “will be allowed to block access to content, applications or services upon express request by the user, per order of authority...”
  • Article 189 proposes that ISPs be forced to provide real-time geolocation of specific devices to public officials “awarded the faculty of requesting it...”
  • Article 190 states that ISPs will be “obligated to permit […] intervention of private communications…”  
  • Article 197, paragraph VII states that, if requested by authorities, ISPs will “temporarily block, inhibit or nullify telecommunication signals in events and locations critical to public or national security...” 

Supporters of the proposed telecom law might argue that these new attributions would allow government to better combat organized crime, but the other side of the story shows that if the legislation is approved as-is, any government would be legally awarded the power to read emails exchanged between its detractors, know their location and cut off their communications.

Would the government consider a mass protest on Avenida Reforma to be an event against public security, and thus block cell phone communications in the area? Those opposing the new law seem to think this is a possibility.

This developing story has caused outrage on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks. Will this outrage help write a different conclusion—one in which the proposed telecom bill is overturned? Or will Mexico join the ranks of censorship-friendly countries such as Cambodia, Turkey and Venezuela?  

*Arjan Shahani is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He lives in Monterrey, Mexico, and is an MBA graduate from Thunderbird University and Tecnológico de Monterrey and a member of the International Advisory Board of Global Majority—an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of non-violent conflict resolution.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico, Telecom

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