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Mexico: Online Free Speech at Risk

Proposed Social Media Regulations Violate International Norms

In this Dec. 18, 2020 file photo, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador gives his daily morning news conference at the presidential palace in Mexico City. On January 14, 2021, López Obrador vowed to lead an international effort to combat what he considers censorship by social media companies that blocked or suspended the accounts of Former US President Donald Trump. © 2020 AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File.

(Washington, DC) – Mexican Senate Majority Leader Ricardo Monreal’s proposed bill to regulate social media networks could severely restrict free speech in Mexico, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill would require companies to censor broadly defined categories of online content in violation of international norms currently in force. Senator Monreal should withdraw his proposal.

On February 8, just a few weeks after social media networks like Twitter and Facebook suspended the accounts of Former US President Donald Trump, Senator Monreal, who leads President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s party, Morena, in the Senate, published a draft bill on his website that would impose regulations on social media networks with users in Mexico. In January, President López Obrador had expressed his concern over the power of the networks to suspend Trump’s accounts.   

“This bill would place the harshest restrictions on free speech that Mexico has seen in decades, opening the door to bans on social media networks and enabling the government to censor speech it disagrees with,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Senator Monreal claims he wants to protect free speech in Mexico, but this bill would do exactly the opposite.”

The draft bill would make Mexico’s telecommunications and broadcasting regulator, the Federal Telecommunications Institute (IFT), the final arbiter in disputes over content moderation, empowering it to overrule social media network operators’ decisions about how and when to delete a user’s content or suspend or cancel their account. And it would enable the IFT to punish social media network operators with fines of up to US $4.4 million if they fail to comply with its rules or if the IFT disagrees with their content moderation decisions. This could encourage further media concentration by forcing smaller companies to stop operating in Mexico altogether to avoid steep fines.

Under the bill, any social media network with one million or more users would need to obtain permission from the IFT to operate in Mexico. The IFT would be able to set rules about how social media networks operate and the types of content they can allow. And it would have the authority to review and change the networks’ terms of service, the rules that users must follow.

In effect, this would enable the IFT to prevent any social media network from operating in Mexico or prohibit users in Mexico from joining an “unauthorized” network, placing significant limits on freedom of expression. It could also encourage social media networks themselves to begin blocking users from Mexico to avoid the IFT review process.

The draft bill would also require social media networks to censor certain types of speech, such as “hate messages,” “fake news,” and any other type of speech the IFT deems should be censored to preserve “order and public interest.” The bill does not provide clear guidelines on what these terms mean, however, requiring social media network operators or the IFT to make determinations about whether statements are true or false. These requirements could lead to arbitrary censorship of legitimate content, enabling the government to force social media networks to censor content it disagrees with. This would be inconsistent with the prohibition on prior censorship in the American Convention on Human Rights.

Finally, the bill would prohibit social media networks from moderating the content on their platforms for reasons that the bill does not specifically mention, such as to prevent spam. This would restrict the ability of social media networks to make reasonable decisions about what kind of content they allow. Social media networks focused on specific groups, subjects, or interests, such as environmental issues or Indigenous culture, would be unable to operate.

Protecting free speech on the internet, ensuring that private entities do not interfere with that freedom, and giving people the ability to appeal restrictions on their speech are legitimate goals. But under international human rights law, Mexico has a responsibility to promote a “free, independent, and diverse communications environment,” and an obligation to ensure that any restriction on speech is necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate purpose. This includes regulation of speech through “indirect methods or means,” such as government controls over media companies.

Under international human rights standards, Mexico should not pass laws against so-called “fake news” or other “vague and ambiguous ideas,” or impose unnecessary or disproportionate restrictions on social media networks or online content. Instead it should promote media diversity and digital literacy. It should also incentivize companies to be transparent about their content moderation policies and to offer remedies for users whose accounts are suspended so that they can make their own choices about which platforms to use and how.  

“Senator Monreal’s proposal is nothing more than censorship—pure and simple. It violates international legal standards by allowing the Mexican government to restrict access to certain websites and to decide what content social media users can and can’t share,” Vivanco said. “Imposing these kinds of heavy-handed regulations will stifle free speech, not protect it.”

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