“Advocacy,” yes, that is what we do

Pilar Sáenz has been a trained physicist for years, but after joining Colombia's free software community, she became a software and free culture activist. 

Until less than a year ago, I did not know the name for what I began doing in 2011 when I decided to oppose what at the time was called the Lleras Law, a bill similar to those presented in other countries such as the Sinde Law in Spain and the Hadopi Law in France. Efforts to oppose the law resulted in the creation of an Internet collective that called itself RedPaTodos [es] (WebForAll).

Advocacy is an English word that does not have an exact translation in Spanish, except for the vague term of “political influence“ [es], defined as a series of actions on behalf of an individual or group that aims to influence public policies within political, economic and social systems as well as institutions.

In Colombia, saying that “political influence” is being done generates mistrust. When someone says he or she is trying to influence Congress members or people in government, there are three reponses: They treat you like a utopian dreamer, one who likes to waste time thinking about nonsense; they consider you a snake asking for favors; or, even worse, they think you are corrupt and looking to get business.

Interveción en Maloka el Día de Internet. Ley Lleras para cuidadanos y Piratas. Foto por Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero, compartida en Flickr por RedPaTodos Aztlek (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Operation in Maloka on Internet Day. The Lleras Law for citizens and Pirates. Photo by Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero, shared on Flickr by RedPaTodos Aztlek (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When someone affirms that he or she wants to have a political impact, they tend to tell you to stop dreaming of changing things and to do something practical like work, to conform to living in the happiest country on earth. They tell you that complaining does not serve any purpose unless you are someone of “political class”; this select group that, for whatever reason, continues to be in power in government after government and, with the exception of limited cases, does not act in interests of the people but rather in those of its own kind.

So, how does a group of citizens who are not politicians, military, or party members (nor do they wish to be so), end up sitting with advisors from two ministries (Communications and Commerce) and in the offices of various Congress members? How have we had dialogues with politicians regardless of whether their party is traditional, like the liberal party, supportive of the current government like new movements of the U party or the Green party, or an opposition party identified with the left like the Democratic Pole? How is it that we were able to have an influence?

The only answer is the very reason we started everything and the one that allows us to discuss these issues publicly: the Internet. For us the web is a new public space that allows for organization and participation.

Let's return to 2011, the moment when Congressman German Vargas Lleras presented a bill [es] that proposed the creation of a mechanism for providers of online services (such as search engines and social networks) to be able to remove content in clear violation of copyright laws, thus shielding them from liability for the actions of their users. This bill was part of the implementation of the FTA (Free Trade Agreement) with the United States and the text of the law is a direct copy of what appeared in the Agreement. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a law that was created for the Internet 15 years ago when Google was recently born, Facebook and Twitter did not exist, and we surfed at the exhilarating speed of 56 kb per second. This law allows companies in the US to block content that is “possibly” infringing.

The Lleras Law text was a poor copy of the old and controversial DMCA, with additions such as treating the country's Internet users as criminal suspects susceptible to the worst punishment, disconnection. The Lleras Law [es] violated our freedom of speech, favored censorship and restricted access to information. It would interfere with the very type of actions online that allow us to have influence as citizens.

It could have been one of those bills that passes without fanfare, voted on without discussion, without question, in the style of a mediocre congress that does not study the issues on which it votes and presents badly written (or even worse, copied) laws that are poorly defended. A congress that looks more like a circus than the cabinet where laws are constructed.

Nevertheless, a group of friends and acquaintances who are software and free culture activists, and who live off of the use and transformation of these technologies, decided to say no, to come out in opposition and go beyond complaining online and joking around about this #LeyLleras bill. We stubbornly decided to use this very technology so that our voice would be heard beyond our circle, to “do something,” to see what legal mechanisms we had and use them. That is how RedPaTodos was born.

With this bill we began learning about advocacy and though it may sound pretentious, that is what we have done. In these two years we have participated in congressional debates [es], informal meetings with congress members [es] and the government [es]; we have written informative articles [es], documents of support [es] for demands in the Constitutional Court and legal comments [es] for laws presented on the issue. After two years of work we saw three bills fail (one archived [es], one declared unenforceable [es], and another withdrawn [es]) and we have already been promised a dialogue [es] on the fourth bill. It is not a bad balance for a group of citizens without experience in the world of politics.

When we started we did it with the pessimistic security that we would not be successful. The strangest part is that so far we have succeeded. Our hope is to keep the Internet free and open so that other activists can use it for that which we are already doing and much more. We do this so that advocacy from the virtual world, on issues such as health, impunity or gender, to name a few, continues to be possible.

RedPaTodos is a civil society collective of organizations and individuals in Colombia that promotes an inclusive use of the Internet and champions the fundamental rights and civil liberties of all Colombians in the digital realm.

The original version of this post, written in Spanish, appeared on the Las 2 Orillas blog.

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