Latin Americans’ digital rights in 2021
December 2021 in the Americas: A free expression round up produced by IFEX’s Regional Editor Paula Martins, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.
Digital rights in 2021
In Derechos Digitales en 2021: un último vistazo al año que nos deja, IFEX’s Chile-based member looks back on a year of challenges to digital rights in Latin America, as well as the important role civil society is playing to defend users rights. I share some of the highlights below, but invite you to review the whole article here.
A first important recognition was for the importance of civil society mobilization — a couple of examples are mentioned where this was key to stopping worrisome developments: In Bolivia and Brazil, civil society managed to prevent legislative initiatives that could have threatened freedom of expression online. In Chile, Derechos Digitales, together with renowned international experts and organizations, strongly criticized a bill to regulate digital platforms which had enormous potential to damage the exercise of fundamental rights; in addition to some misconceptions, the project ignores important human rights standards already developed at the international level (see here the position of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights [IACHR] Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression in this regard). In Colombia, civil society groups helped stop a legal initiative that, in the name of protecting the rights of children and adolescents, sought to implement a series of provisions to control the circulation of content on the internet.
A point of concern in 2021 was a perceived increase in violence online — especially gender-based violence. While the internet has the potential to amplify access to information and the possibilities for free and democratic expression, online violence generates trauma and exclusion. Victims feel forced to disconnect to feel safe. This situation has impacted women journalists — Derechos Digitales mentions data from UNESCO, according to which, out of a sample of 901 journalists from different countries who identify as women, 73% have experienced some form of online violence — with the threat of physical and sexual assault directed at them or their family members being one of the most common. Also, 20% report having suffered attacks or abuses resulting from online violence.
The article also highlights how in 2021, due to COVID and other economic and political crises, the impacts of the digital divide became more evident than ever. Through lack of connection of precarity of access, thousands of people were excluded by the digitalization of public services, including those linked to the control of the pandemic or its effects on the lives of people in the region (see, for example, Sistemas de Identificación y Protección Social en Venezuela y Bolivia).
This same digitalization of the public sector has also meant more data collection — in many cases, without due guarantees of protection. With other organizations in the region, Derechos Digitales analyzed the use of technological tools intended to assist in the struggle against the pandemic and found little evidence of effectiveness and no consideration for evaluation processes or participatory audits. Due to the absence of previous impact studies and sufficient security measures, these initiatives constituted risks to the exercise of human rights and failed to comply with standards of legality, necessity and proportionality.
Another worrisome conclusion is that surveillance flourished in Latin America during the last year: an expansion in the use of facial recognition technologies was observed, especially in public spaces, without major questioning about their consequences. Mobilization around this agenda, however, had some positive results: in Ecuador a data protection law was finally approved; in Brazil, proposals have been put forward for a ban on facial recognition.
Venezuela — In the sights of the algorithm
A new publication released by Instituto Prensa y Sociedad Venezuela (IPYS — Venezuela) — En la mira del algoritmo — reports on how the use of content removal practices has silenced critical online media. According to the document, content moderation has been used to censor the websites of media outlets as well as civil society organizations.
The first documented cases of these practices in Venezuela date back to 2016, when the Spanish company Eliminalia requested the elimination of articles published in El Pitazo, Runrunes, El Estímulo, A Todo Momento and the portal Poderopedia, whose objective is to map power relations in Venezuelan business and politics. That year, requests were based mainly on interpretations of the national legal framework, including the Venezuelan Constitution. Poderopedia claims to have received at least five other requests for removal of content in the first 10 months of 2021, three of them made in a personal capacity and two others through a Spanish law firm whose name they chose not to disclose, for security reasons.
In June 2020, investigative media outlet Armando.info received a request to delete one of its reports so that it would not show up in online searches related to one of the people mentioned in it. The request cited articles of the Venezuelan Constitution, combined with European legislation. Subsequently, with the support of the Swedish NGO Qurium, the media outlet was able to confirm that the request, sent from an email address that appeared to belong to some European legal authority (firstname.lastname@example.org), would have actually been sent by Eliminalia; Armando.info claimed to have received at least three similar emails since 2019, all from servers of this company.
El Pitazo had its YouTube channel suspended on four separate occasions as a result of having published informative videos. Two of the suspensions were related to speeches in which Nicolás Maduro affirmed that Venezuela would produce treatments against COVID-19.
The report also mentions the case of the NGO Access to Justice, which faced a suspension by the hosting service of its website after receiving two complaints for alleged plagiarism; one in December 2019 and one in March 2020.
Content moderation has led to more errors in the suspension of Twitter accounts and in the removal of posts and stories on Instagram. Some of the removals result from malign intent and straightforward attempts to silence, while others result from errors in decision-making by algorithms.
To learn more about content removal, how it is carried out by internet companies, and what its effects are for freedom of expression, read IPYS-Venezuela’s full report here.
Institutionalized violence against journalists in Brazil…
Data on violations of freedom of expression in Brazil show a tendency of ‘institutionalization’ of violence against communicators. In 2017, seven attacks were documented where the violators were political agents (and their direct associates, such as political advisors) and public servants. In 2018 and 2019, four violations per year were registered. In 2020 we saw a radical change. That year, at least 53 violations by these agents were monitored, mainly in the months following the electoral period (September to November) and around content related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, according to preliminary data, at least 20 cases were recorded.
The numbers indicate a growth in violations committed by political agents and state representatives, especially during moments of greater political polarization. This has been a trend during the administration of Jair Bolsonaro. IFEX-ALC member ARTIGO 19 will soon be releasing the full data for 2021.
…and violence that targets Brazilian women journalists
Another Brazilian IFEX-ALC member, the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji), monitored gender-based attacks against women journalists throughout 2021. From 1 January to 22 December 2021, female journalists were assaulted, offended, intimidated and threatened in the exercise of the profession in 78 different episodes — an average of six attacks per month.
In 71.8% of the cases identified by Abraji, female journalists were the targets of so-called ‘stigmatizing discourses’, which in general referred to verbal aggressions meant to antagonize and undermine them. In this context, terms such as “militant”, “jornazi”, “garbage” and “communist” were used to discredit them as professionals. Misogynistic expressions were also part of the dynamics of aggressions and were present in 41% of the speeches aimed at journalists and communicators, representing 29.5% of the total attacks. They were called “sluts”, “whores”, “odd jobs”, “ugly”, “old”, “dumb” and “crazy”, among other sexist words that instrumentalize appearance and sexuality in an attempt to silence their voices.
Of the total number of assaults against these communicators in 2021, 62.8% occurred while the professionals covered political issues.
There may have been far more. The stigma that accompanies gender-related aggressions, among other factors, tends to lead to underreporting. That’s why Abraji launched a channel for the reporting of gender attacks against press professionals. Through it, it is possible to record situations experienced or witnessed throughout 2021.
For more information on the cases documented and their systematization, check the project’s website here.
Biometrics and facial recognition concerns in Ecuador
Between July and October 2021, IFEX-ALC member Fundamedios carried out an investigation into video surveillance in Ecuador, from a human rights perspective. Several recommendations have come out of that study.
The group has urged the Ecuadorian Government and municipalities not to adopt biometric surveillance technology, such as facial recognition. arguing that the country lacks the needed legislation to protect citizens’ rights. The Organic Law on the Protection of Personal Data, approved in May 2021, does not mention limits to video surveillance, nor does it clearly refer to personal data obtained through video surveillance cameras (or facial recognition). The country also fails to comply with international standards that recommend states take effective measures to prevent the illegal retention, processing and use of personal data stored by public authorities and by companies.
To learn more, access the full report here.
Educational gag orders in the US
As reported in previous briefs, PEN America has been monitoring the use of gag orders to restrict educational material about issues such as race, racism, gender, and American history. According to the December update, the total for 2021 reached the staggering number of 66 orders in 26 states, 12 of which have passed into law. You can access them all through PEN’s Index, here.
According to PEN, a South Carolina proposal is particularly concerning. If approved, it would apply to any entity receiving state funds or that benefits from tax exempt or nonprofit status, including public and private schools and universities, all levels of state government, state contractors, charitable organizations, and many private businesses. Such entities would then be prohibited from promoting concepts considered ‘discriminatory’, including:
- “a group or an individual, by virtue of his or her race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, heritage, culture, religion, or political belief is inherently racist, sexist, bigoted, ignorant, biased, fragile, oppressive, or contributive to any oppression, whether consciously or unconsciously;”
- “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of his or her race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, heritage, culture, religion, or political belief;”
- “an individual’s moral character, value, or status, whether wholly or partly, is necessarily determined by his or her race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, heritage, culture, religion, or political belief.”
Learn more about the South Carolina proposal and other identified bills here.
PEN has emphasized that these legislative proposals demonstrate “a disregard for academic freedom, liberal education, and the values of free speech and open inquiry that are enshrined in the First Amendment and that anchor a democratic society.”
AI and policing in the US: IFEX member Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has repeatedly expressed concern over the growing use of AI by the police in the US. According to the organization, “programs which claim to use AI for policing just reaffirm, justify, and legitimize the opinions and actions already being undertaken by police departments. (…) AI tech washes unjust data created by an unjust criminal justice system”. The organization has now looked back at cases and research carried out in 2021 that show how dangerous predictive or data-driven policing can be, and how they perpetuate structural racism and inequality.
Attack against Channel 44 in Mexico: In late December, armed men attacked the facilities of the Radio and Television media of Channel 44 and killed two security guards in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco. The events occurred a day after the channel interviewed journalist Ricardo Ravelo and widely disseminated his case regarding the censorship and initiation of legal proceedings against him by the governor of the state of Jalisco, Enrique Alfaro — which followed journalistic investigations into the alleged existence of links between the state government and organized crime groups.
Inter-American Court of Human Rights affirms Indigenous Peoples’ right to freedom of expression in Guatemala: On 17 December 2021, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights announced its decision in the case of the Kaqchikel Maya Indigenous People of Sumpango v. Guatemala, declaring the Republic of Guatemala internationally responsible for the violation of the rights to freedom of expression, equality before the law, and participation in cultural life of the indigenous people. Currently, in Guatemala, indigenous community radio stations are not legal, despite the inclusion of a provision in this regard more than 26 years ago in the Guatemalan Peace Accords. Today, they continue to operate in a legal ‘grey area’ that has led to frequent persecution, disparagement and criminalization by major media conglomerates, national police and politicians.
Transparency of internet platforms: 21 Latin American civil society organizations signed a declaration committing to promote transparency and accountability of Internet platforms with respect to the human rights impacts of their operation. The statement stresses that transparency of content platforms is “necessary, urgent and mandatory.” According to the signatories, this requirement covers the platforms’ processes of content moderation and filtering, including algorithmic transparency. For them, such transparency is necessary to empower users against the power of private regulation.
Originally published at https://ifex.org on January 11, 2022.