(New York) – A bill before the Honduran Congress would severely harm free speech by compelling companies providing internet services to censor content, Human Rights Watch said today. Congress should reject the bill, which was approved during an initial vote on February 8, 2018 and faces two more rounds of discussion and voting before it would become law.

Under the proposed law, such companies would be required to block or remove “illegal content” that might be posted to platforms by users  within 24 hours of receiving a complaint, a period which could be extended to seven days if “duly justified.”  If the company does not act, its website could be blocked or suspended, depriving all Hondurans of access to the platform because of the alleged illegal conduct of a few.  The tight deadlines and serious sanctions give companies an incentive to err on the side of censorship, as do new, sweeping categories of  “illegal content.” They include “incitement to discriminate” aimed at “harming dignity” and “incitement or expression of hate”  to promote or feed discourse with “discriminatory connotations.” The law makes no provision for either judicial consideration and orders before content is deleted, or judicial review of corporate censorship decisions.

“The bill would enable the government to use companies providing internet services to impose unacceptable restrictions on free speech that would go far beyond what might be legitimate under international human rights law,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.  

The original version of the bill was introduced on February 1 by a Congressman from the political party of President Juan Orlando Hernández titled “Law that regulates acts of hate and discrimination in social media and the Internet.”  The bill was virtually identical to the bill submitted by the then-president, Rafael Correa, to Ecuador’s National Assembly in March 2017.  The original bill was roundly condemned by nongovernmental organizations, the Honduran Private Companies Council, and the Organization for American States’ special rapporteur for freedom of expression, Edison Lanza, among others.

In an effort to justify the consership regime provided in the bill, the special commission of Congress revising it added several provisions on the topic of “cybersecurity,” contending that the law seeks to protect Honduras’ national security. However, the essence of the original project remains, Human Rights Watch said.  In addition to providing vague new definitions for “illegal content” categories, the proposed law fails to specify how the body that is charged with imposing sanctions will be established and what criteria will be used. The law provides for the creation of a committee consisting  of representatives of 19 state institutions, a majority of them part of the executive branch. The committee is tasked with establishing a directorate charged with assessing whether internet companies comply with the law and imposing sanctions if they fail, including substantial fines and suspending or blocking their sites.

“Giving these enforcement powers to a body controlled by the executive branch is a recipe for political censorship,” Vivanco said. “This unmasks any efforts made to present the law as a means to protect national security, when in fact it is a crude mechism the executive branch can use to control free speech.”

In June 2011, the special rapporteurs for freedom of expression of the Americas, Europe, Africa, and the United Nations, issued the “Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and the Internet,” which sets forth guidelines regarding how to regulate the internet in a manner that is compatible, among others, with the American Convention on Human Rights, to which Honduras is a party.

The declaration states that “no one who simply provides technical internet services such as providing access, or searching for, or transmission or caching of information, should be liable for content generated by others, which is disseminated using those services […].”  The bill, however, appears to impose the duty of removal or pain of liability on Internet service providers, even in the absence of a court order or any intervention by the company in the illegal content its users post.