Will Ecuador Criminalize Slander on Social Networks?

Social network users in Ecuador could risk prosecution for crimes of libel and slander under criminal law reforms that will be brought before to the National Assembly in the coming days. Authored by Alexis Mera, the legal presidential secretary and driving force behind the proposal, such offenses could be punishable by two years in prison.

“I have proposed to regulate all slander processes on social networks because these networks cannot be an instrument of impunity. I have asked the Bureau of Justice to make a special procedure in the instance of libel on Twitter or Facebook because now libel against a person that has 1000 followers may be faster and do more damage,” said Mera [es] at the end of August.

More recently, Assemblyman Mauro Andino stated [es] that ways of bringing these measures into practice are being explored, since identifying the individuals behind various accounts on the Internet is “quite complicated”. One of the options he put forth is the obligatory installation of cameras in Internet cafes, “not to attack someone's privacy, not to control social networks,” but in order to identify the perpetrators of the crimes.

Internet cafe. Photo by Pixelthing via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Internet cafe. Photo by Pixelthing via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

These measures, however, contradict recommendations from international human rights organizations and constitute a threat to Ecuadorians’ freedom of expression. Several civil society organizations, both Ecuadorian and international, have rejected this proposal, arguing that peoples’ rights outside the Internet are the same in an online setting and that expression on social networks should not be categorized differently.

Frank La Rue, UN Special Reporter for the promotion and protection of the freedom of opinion and expression, said in various reports that “given the peculiar features of the Internet, a series of regulations and restrictions that could be considered legitimate and proportionate in the case of traditional media do not tend to be so when applied to the Internet.” He also reiterated a number of times that “defamation should be decriminalized”. The prime movers of this reform are doing the exact opposite.

The measures being taken for implementation (such as imposing surveillance mechanisms in Internet cafes) have a big impact on citizens’ freedom of expression and privacy. One the one hand, it threatens the principles of necessity and proportionality enshrined in international legislation for restrictions on freedom of expresion. On the other, it attributes control to private companies like Internet cafes (and, although its proponents have not mentioned it, probably to Internet service providers as well), ignoring the legal safeguards available to the public when not dealing with the Internet.

Measures like the ones Ecuador aims to carry out discourage public deliberation and translate into practices of self-censorship, which can lead to a true undermining of democracy.

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