04/27/14 (written by cmolzahn) — Secondary legislation proposed by President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) to modify Mexico’s telecommunications laws drew swift and decisive rebuke from free speech advocates, both domestic and abroad, as well as members of Mexico’s left-leaning opposition party. The far-reaching reforms would give a regulatory framework to eight articles of the Mexican constitution amended in July of last year as part of wider constitutional reforms. The proposal received immediate criticism from opposition parties and free speech advocates, who say that the measures would weaken the autonomous telecommunications oversight agency created under the 2013 reforms, and give the government undue powers to limit or block access to the Internet and other forms of communication when deemed necessary for public security.
Reforming the telecommunications sector had been one of the demands of Peña Nieto’s opposition. It was reported in June 2012 that Peña Nieto won the presidency in part due to favorable coverage from Televisa, Mexico’s largest television provider. The Pact for Mexico (Pacto por México), an accord between the Peña Nieto government and representatives from the opposition National Action Party (Partido de Acción Nacional, PAN) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Democrática, PRD), had pushed the reforms before disintegrating amidst the heated debate over privatization of the nation’s energy sector in December 2013. In March when the proposed reforms were presented to the Senate, Jesús Zambrano, president of the PRD and architect of the Pact for Mexico, proclaimed that the government was working to limit the reach and intents of the 2013 constitutional reforms. Gabriel Sosa Platas, an expert in telecommunications, said that with the proposed reforms there is a risk that Peña Nieto could “rekindle that relation” that he had with television broadcasters that he enjoyed as a presidential candidate.
According to some experts, the law would weaken the nascent Federal Telecommunications Institute (Institute Federal de Telecomunicaciones, IFT), the autonomous federal regulatory body created as part of the 2013 constitutional reforms. According to the Mexican Association of Investigators of Communication (Asociación Mexicana de Investigadores de la Comunicación, AMIC), the federal government is seeking to shift more oversight and regulatory powers to the Interior Ministry (Secretaría de Gobernación). As a result of this measure, Sosa Platas called the proposed legislation “an historic instrument of control” on the part of the government. Furthermore, critics point out that the law would hand the responsibility of defending user rights not to the IFT, but to the federal consumer protection agency (Procuraduría Federal del Consumidor, Profeco), a division of the Ministry of the Economy (Secretaría de Economía). Amidst the turmoil that the proposed legislation has caused, senators voted to table discussions on the matter, opting instead to address pending political and electoral reforms. The Senate will reconvene during a special session, which would likely take place in June, to continue debate over the telecommunications initiative.
Hundreds of protestors, mostly young people, marched down Mexico City’s Reforma Avenue to the Senate building on April 22 to protest the proposed legislation. The demonstration was organized over social media, which has become an increasingly common means of communication and organization in Mexico during recent years. A Twitter handle, #EPNvsInternet, emerged on Monday, April 21, and by Wednesday, April 23 had amassed over 843,000 references on Twitter. Helping the cause was a viral video in which Mexican actress Eréndira Ibarra urged citizens to mention the Twitter handle, and to join in the march on April 22. The following Saturday, similar, smaller protests formed in Saltillo, Coahuila and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, with participants forming “human chains” and displaying signs showing a unified opposition to the proposed telecommunications law. Members of the opposing PRD quickly responded to the protests, offering their own proposals that they say would protect free speech and net neutrality, which critics say are threatened by the president’s proposals. Meanwhile, PAN senators are divided on the issue, some siding with the PRD in its unified opposition, while others have opted to support the president’s proposals.
In early April, leaders of advocacy organizations and academics were invited to the Senate to address the reforms’ free speech implications on the last day of hearings regarding the matter, and those given the floor generally agreed that the legislation posed a threat to freedom of expression in Mexico. Most concerning to free speech advocates was a measure in the legislation proposed by the executive branch that would allow authorities to request that Internet providers limit or block certain Internet content or cut off cell phone service when they deem that it presents a public safety risk. The Peña Nieto government maintains that the measure is intended to combat criminal activities that transpire online, such as child pornography, but critics contend that the measure is in direct conflict with constitutional free speech rights. Also concerning to critics of the initiative was an article in the proposed legislation that would allow authorities to block telecommunications signals in times or places where authorities deemed that public security concerns merited such actions. Some have expressed concern that under the proposed reforms the government could cut off communications during public protests as a form of censorship under the guise of protecting public security. Critics also say that the proposed law would further favor the two major television networks—Televisa and TV Azteca—over community and indigenous broadcasters in the allocation of radio frequencies and their capacity to acquire funding. Additional concerns over privacy have been raised, as critics say that the law would increase the government’s power to monitor communication, employ geo-localization with no oversight, and require phone companies to track and store personal and communications data on their customers that could later be accessed by the government without a court order. Luis Fernando García, representative from the Network for the Defense of Digital Rights (Red por la Defensa de Derechos Digitales), warned that the proposed changes “confirm the deliberate purpose of neutralizing the Internet as a tool for exercising liberties and converting it into an instrument of political control.” Likewise, Jesús Robles Maloof, from the Free Internet for All Collective (Colectivo Internet Libre para Todos), characterized the legislation as “the largest regressive and authoritative challenge since the Internet has existed in [Mexico].”
Following the march on April 22, Communications and Transportation Secretary Gerardo Ruiz Esparza and PRI legislators promised to make changes to the controversial proposals. In a press conference, Ruiz stressed that the Peña Nieto administration never intended for the proposed law to infringe on citizens’ constitutional rights to free speech or their access to online content, but rather to detect and prevent content and communications that are linked to crimes. While exact details remain unclear, it appears that the measures allowing the blocking of Internet content will be removed from the proposed legislation.