Grecia Macìas is a lawyer at R3D: La Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales. She graduated from the Universidad Panamericana Law School in Mexico. She has experience in Constitutional Law and Human Rights, and is passionate about issues of freedom of expression, privacy, content moderation and algorithm inequality.
EFF’s Director of Civil Liberties, David Greene, met up with Grecia at RightsCon 2023 in Costa Rica. They dove in for a lively conversation covering a wide range of topics like freedom of expression as a tool of power and community for the oppressed, particularly in the context of Mexico; what it means to be a woman working in the free speech space; and why young people are embracing free speech more and more. Grecia also gives us a pertinent and important reminder for us all- free speech is punk.
Greene: First, can you introduce yourself?
I’m a lawyer at R3D: La Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales. I do a lot of work and strategic litigation on freedom of speech online.
Greene: What does freedom of speech mean to you?
What does freedom of speech mean to me? Oh my god, basically part of my whole identity. Freedom of speech is a way to reclaim spaces, it’s one of the cornerstones of democracy, especially in Latin America, especially in Mexico, where there’s so much pressure and violence against people who are trying to exercise their rights. It’s the right to speak freely without any consequences—that goes from being publicly shamed to being killed. And in the case of a lot of journalists, Mexico is one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist in the world. So, for me freedom of speech is one of the most essential values for not only individual people, but for the whole society. You know, it goes both ways, right? It helps me to express who I am and what I’m doing, and also makes me hear what other ideas are coming and what we can create. It’s a tool for power for the people. I’m getting romantic here [laughs].
Greene: It’s okay, it’s good! The next question is what are the qualities that make you passionate about free speech and I think you can segue into why -- you know I’m the same way, I get this feeling right here. But why do you think that is?
I think it’s also because being a woman in Mexico is really dangerous. You’re constantly facing a lot of dangers and troubles, and, having the freedom to talk freely and say whatever I want, it’s a way to—well, first, for me it’s really punk. For me, freedom of speech is punk. Punk is not dead. It’s in freedom of speech advocates and journalists and the ones who want to spread information for everyone. Also, I think because of the democratic and communal thing of freedom of speech- it belongs to everyone. Everyone has the opportunity to say whatever they say. I don’t think it gets more social and democratic than that. And, also, that’s how you generate communities. Because language is the basic unifier to start generating relationships and it’s the basis of our society basically. Oh, my god, I’m getting…
Greene: It’s good to get emotional! So, is there an experience you’ve had that really shaped how you feel about freedom of expression now?
Well, I’ve always been a troublemaker. Especially when I was in college and law school, I was constantly being kind of censored because I wanted to write about abortion and reproductive rights. And someone, for example, when I was published in a law review, they told me, “Oh, we don’t do that. And you shouldn’t do that.” Because it was a really Catholic college. And so, for me, I was like, “Why not?” And I had a scholarship at the time. Then they said, “Because that’s not how we do things. And if you publish it may affect your scholarship.”
Greene: So that was something they could hold over you?
Yeah, I mean, and that’s just one example directly from me. For example, in the state where I was born, there was a lot of violence when I was growing up. And I remember clearly when there was this journalist that was doing a lot of work on what was really happening in the state. Mostly local news. And they were unveiling a lot of corruption and schemes that the area was having. [The journalist] was a woman and she was killed because of doing her job. The thing is that that happens so much in Mexico that it was like a small line in a news article. When for me—I was really young, I was 13 or 14— and I was like: why is this not a national tragedy? Why do we have to be desensitized to this? And I think that that really, that as a teenager, and as a rebellious student, and now —I’m still hating everything and I want to shout everything that goes through my mind every time. I just want to keep doing that. I don’t want any government or company to tell me when I can or cannot speak. I think that’s basically it.
Greene: So, you told me earlier you’re 26, right? Do you feel like people your age generally share your views on freedom of expression or do you feel like you’re way out there?
No, I think generally people my age are more vocal and love to exercise the right to, even to write the stupidest or silliest tweets. Even just that possibility it’s really cathartic to a lot of us. And I do see a lot more people interested in freedom of speech, even people younger than me. I see it in the proudest, I see it when they are doing all the outrage, you can see it at online platforms and so on. And when you, because of the Latin American context, where there has been this whole background of censorship, of dictatorships, of violence. For us, it’s more normal for us to say, no you cannot take this from us. Because when you take this right from us, it’s a disaster. It’s the first authoritarian symptom we can recognize because of our specific history. And right now, I think, most of our generation are being more focused on not only protecting that right, but also claiming more spaces where we can exercise this right freely.
Greene: You talked about why as a young person how free speech helped you confront authority. Is there something in particular about your experience as a woman that has led you to be a free expression devotée?
Oof. I cannot count how many times I have heard a guy tell me to shut up. So many times. So many times. I think that’s why I have a problem with authority—and also, specifically, some kinds of male authorities—that tell you, “Not only because you’re young, but because you’re a woman.” Like, why? Who gave you the right? Specifically, for a woman to speak up and be able to voice your opinion is difficult. Even in some of the most progressive spaces when you try to voice your opinion and someone is like “Actually that isn’t happening. So, stop speaking and just listen to the grownups and the guys.”
Greene: So even in spaces that might consider themselves democratic, you’re still going to be confronting men telling you and other women that you shouldn’t speak?
Yeah, and as a woman living in Mexico that happens a lot. I mean if you are talkative or chatty like me, if you really like to voice your opinion or be really expressive of what you’re thinking and just cannot hold it in yourself. They’re looking like, “Oh, you just want to impose, you’re bossy. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” And that happens as a woman. Also, I’m a lawyer, so the legal profession is filled with people just telling you to obey and just shut up. So, of course, it’s been essential for my development as a freedom of speech advocate.
Greene: Okay, let’s talk about the limits of freedom of expression.
Ooh, spicy topic.
Greene: What situations, if any, do you think it might be appropriate for governments to limit speech?
It’s interesting because I believe our Inter-American system is way more protective of freedom of speech than the First Amendment [to the U.S. Constitution].
Greene: And I do not disagree with you.
And any time I say that it’s like “Oh no, why? Because Americans, the First Amendment, they have all these protections.” And I say, “Uh-uh, you haven’t seen Latin American standards.” We have a specific provision against prior censorship and the restrictions are really, really specific to incitement to violence, incitement to genocide, and also CSAM content. And that’s it. I mean all the restrictions shield that’s not protected speech for example. All the restrictions should never be censorship. In some sense, it could be like ulterior responsibilities and those restrictions should be necessary and proportionate in a democratic society and for the specific case and specific context.
Greene: But what might be some of those—look at this way—are there certain interests or harms you think that might justify necessary and proportionate restrictions on speech?
I mean, yeah, incitement of violence. Hate speech. I’m talking really lawyerish because specifically in the Latin American convention it says “incitement of violence” or “hate speech.”
Greene: So, incitement of violence or incitement of hate speech. Or incitement of hate.
Incitement of hate and discrimination. Of course, and the distinction, for me, is that those are not even protected by free speech. We have restrictions and those specific discourses are not even going to have a list—these safeguards, this amazing thing, the protection we give to freedom of speech. So that’s why you can say, of course, no right is ultimate. I think there has been a manipulation of what hate speech really means. Sometimes we forget that this specific kind of speech should be focused on vulnerable groups and the vulnerable groups who have been historically oppressed. How that specific kind of discourses affect them personally. And to take that in account, and of course it’s a limit we always have to harness. The answer is sometimes to see, what is the best way to come at it? Latin America is going to say censorship is not a way, so let’s find another kind of solution. We have to be more specific to say who we want to protect, what we want to protect, and how we’re going to protect it.
Greene: In some ways that’s one way, maybe, US free speech is more speech protective, in that there’s no specific exclusion for incitement to hate or hate speech or speech that incites hate. You know, hateful speech can’t get regulated until it reaches the level of harassment or stalking or something like that. Do you think one system is better? Do you think you get different results with those systems?
You get different results. I understand that. I mean, how I see it is that also harnessing and not seeing how incitement to discrimination—it can also lead to censorship. You create a space where people are afraid to speak because they’re going to be discriminated against. The thing is—freedom of speech—I like it, really. I know I like it because you never have a completely correct answer. You’re never going to have freedom of speech controversies and be able to say, “Yes, this is the solution for everything.” It should always be context-dependent and region-dependent. For example, I say hate speech and those examples were not even protected discourses, but there still can’t be prior censorship on that. So, we still have, like, ok those are not protected, we should do something. But this rule stands. And it’s because there’s a reason to hear even the things that we hate. And there’s going to be nasty discourse and a lot of nasty things, but sometimes we need to hear that. Of course, not in the context of discrimination. For example, if some public figure or state representative is saying all this shit—oops, I’m sorry!
Greene: [Laughing] It’s okay for this interview.
Well yeah, it’s freedom of speech, so I can swear! We need to know that he’s saying that stuff. So that we can know what kind of person that is.
Greene: What do you feel about counter-speech?
I love counter-speech!
Greene: Especially in terms of discrimination or hate speech. Some people say that hateful or discriminatory speech—you know, people are so harmed by it immediately that maybe counter-speech doesn’t help. Why do you love counter-speech?
I love counter-speech. Because I’m all for appropriating/ re-appropriating some kind of terms and also reclaiming the spaces. So, for me—and not only counter-speech—but also be strategic, because sometimes it’s not that you just censor everything, it’s maybe not giving the platform what they need. Like to know when to engage with and to know how to have a discussion as well. For example, it’s really easy to say, “If somebody is discriminating against you, just tell them no! Or respond to them.” Of course, it’s difficult.
Also, there should be other ways to harness the support to those communities. And that could happen also with another set of tools. I mean, sometimes we only think that the only answer is to limit everything without seeing all the panorama that we have. Right? For example, why are we not talking about preventative measures? I mean, the best thing to combat hate speech is to make people stop hating. That’s why I like counter-speech. I’m a really privileged woman to have the opportunity to do that. Because it’s not always going to be the responsibility of the person being discriminated against to do that. But it’s a way to start. It’s a way for other people to have more engagement and more meaningful conversations. And also I know that there is discourse that we can analyze. For example, with transgender-exclusionary people—[being trans is] a human right, their identity is a human right—we don’t debate that. But we can counter the speech saying—not debating or engaging in those conversations—but giving a platform for transgender people so they can push forward their histories and their struggles and their narratives. That’s how I think about counter-speech. Not directly engaging with the trolls and haters. But supporting speech that will help move the conversation forward. And saying prevention is the best solution.
Greene: It makes sense to me. As a lawyer, have you ever had to defend speech that you strongly disagreed with? Can you talk about that?
Yes. It’s crazy because it’s like, “Oh my god I hate this speech, this specific discourse.” But sometimes people react to hateful speech—in my example, it wasn’t hateful speech, it was impertinent comments on companies and stuff and all this kind of rightwing stuff. But the thing is, when you are in law and you set a standard, people always forget that that standard could also be applied to the other side of the spectrum. So, for me, that’s the gist of freedom of speech. You cannot establish these general rules that will likely be used against vulnerable people that we’re trying to protect, even though sometimes they are going to be used against those speeches that I hate from the far right. For example, there was a march, a protest, against reproductive rights and authorities wanted to forbid them from doing the protest. We cannot do that, because if we start limiting the way people can protest it will definitely be used against us. Even though we are in favor of reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights. I mean freedom of speech applies for everyone, even the people you don’t like that much.
Greene: Who is your free speech hero?
Aw, I have a lot of free speech heroes.
Greene: You don’t have to narrow it down to one. You can name a few if you want… and if you feel like you need to mention Luis Fernando, it’s okay [chuckles].
I mean, Miroslava Breach is a journalist in Mexico who was also killed because of her job. In general, journalists, and specifically Mexican journalists. But also Latin American journalists are like modern superheroes. They have always been super heroes, but right now how they keep doing their work and they keep pushing forward with their stories and look for the stories and to publish everything even though it’s going to be controversial and put their lives at stake—it’s crazy. And I adore their job.
Greene: Did you know her personally or were you just familiar with her work?
It’s a really famous story. And we were familiar with her work. But just to hear her story and see how she put her life on the line just to give the opportunity for people to get information and express themselves.
Greene: Do you think she knew she was risking her life?
Yes, she knew. She knew. She just didn’t care. For her it was more valuable for her to make her voice heard and to get these kinds of stories in the public discourse than her life. And it shouldn’t be that way! I don’t want to romanticize it, but for me, it’s crazy.
Greene: How do you feel about governance of speech by corporations?
Oh god, now we’re going to content moderation [laughs].
Greene: Well, I didn’t say that exactly. Just governance of speech.
I mean, I used to believe, I remember the internet when I was young. And it seemed like a huge playground where you could go to any forum and just go and say whatever you want. And I’m a huge nerd, so I had my forum for Dungeons and Dragons and everything and it was decentralized and it was really my kind of place. Where I could have my community and engage. And I miss that.
Whereas, right now, like at RightsCon, we have a chat, an unofficial chat. And I was engaging a lot with that chat, and I just miss that kind of unhinged conversation with nobody like the platform dictating in really specific ways that are done by a specific point of view of the Global North. And I hate that they set the standards. And now when you hear about the internet everyone just thinks that’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. And it’s like, no, it’s way more than that. The speech that you can have on the internet is way more than just a feed, way more than just what the big platforms give you.
And I think that’s one of the things that we’re most pressing against when we’re talking about content moderation and content governance. We should reclaim those spaces that existed when there wasn’t only Twitter and Facebook, when there weren't only three spaces to see it. So yeah, you can see I’m not a big fan of them. But I know their role is important. Twitter is basically the reason I knew about digital rights or fangirled about my digital rights heroes like you and Jillian York, for example. It’s a way I can also connect with a lot of people. But it’s not enough. And also this concept of just having to resign like, “Well, it’s what we have, so just deal with it.” I want to think that other futures and environments are possible for freedom of speech and online.
Greene: Do you feel like in order to ensure that… should governments be able to dictate how the corporations deal with user speech? Or, should they also limit them or limit the ability to cancel accounts or take down posts?
I mean, regulation is not an easy answer. I like this analogy that it’s a zero-sum game for when you’re moderating content. I mean nobody is going to be happy. But I don’t think governments should always take the decision. Which accounts are removed or something. I think there should be basic principles. I’m going to do shameless self-promotion of the Santa Clara Principles. I think governments should be more involved in processes, not content itself. Of course, we have to make companies accountable. Of course. But it’s not always just around content moderation. There’s a lot of ways to make them accountable.
For example, what’s happening with competition, right? How do we make Big Tech not so big? Why don’t they have obligations also for data protection? I do believe also that governments should be involved in enforced transparency, maybe. From platforms. But, the thing is, when you want to talk with governments, sometimes they just want to eat the whole cake and also impose restrictions on content and how to remove content and that’s it. The other thing is, it also depends on the region. For example, it’s not the same, how it’s going to be applied, some regulation at all. For example, say the DSA, and how it has disproportionately affected how a lot of people see content moderation at the Latin American group when we have a more specific framework, our specific way of dealing with this stuff also. So, I don’t know. We’re still working on that. It’s a give or take. But I do know where not to start and it’s with specific regulation of content—nuh uh. That’s not the answer.
Greene: One more really difficult free speech problem. Anti-democratic misinformation. Would that justify necessary and proportionate measures? …. You’re shaking your head no. Let the microphone reflect that she shook her head no [laughs]
[Also laughing] I shook my head. I know misinformation is also a problem, but I don’t know if law is the way to solve that. We lawyers love to involve law in everything. But I think there are more pressing issues. At least, at the Inter-American system, about misinformation. The thing is that, of course, there’s different kinds of disinformation. And yeah, it’s a really pressing question. I always hate it when we talk about disinformation because I know that people say “Well, this is a problem, so states should be involved and to establish those restrictions.” But all of the efforts I’ve seen on how to impose those restrictions always led to abuse of those restrictions against the vulnerable groups again. I mean, it could be, but it depends on what kind of processes we want. Like, for example, for elections? Let’s see what’s the objective of that specific measure. Is this like someone telling someone misinformation at the polling station? If someone spreads information like “Oh, the polling stations are in a different direction.” Of course, that should be sanctioned in some way. But it should be, depending on the context of what’s happening. And with a lot of standards, because you cannot establish a clear rule to combat disinformation, I’ve seen how people abuse that. For example, we have a lot of provisions in Mexico around gender violence for women in politics. And on paper that looks great. But what happened is some politicians have been using that specific provision to frame gender violence as any critique that they receive of their job.
Greene: Do you have a specific example of that that you can remember?
A congresswoman was critiqued over one bill that she was pushing. It was critiqued by a comedian. And she sued him at the electoral authorities because she was saying “Well, that’s gender-based violence because you’re attacking a woman.” I was like… no. Critiquing and attacking are two very different things. But, again, the standards are so broad and it’s not that really specifically focused on what we’re really trying to protect. Now we have this issue where people are trying to censor people that are not in agreement with them. Just using this specific provision.
Greene: So you would make a distinction between antidemocratic misinformation that was hurting someone’s ability to vote, like “your polling place is in the wrong place or you don’t qualify to vote unless you’re 50,” but you want to make sure that misinformation that’s like “my senator is a fraud” or “my senator is corrupt and steals money,” you want to make sure that’s not considered election misinformation?
Of course, because I’ve seen that, every time we talk about misinformation at the local level or state level or national level they’re always like, “They tweeted things that weren’t true- I should sue them!” I’m like, no that’s not putting in danger specifically democratic processes, like my ability to vote. It’s not putting our democracy at risk. Your provision wanted to do that, that’s what puts democracy at risk. It’s hard to get that sweet spot when you can counter a lot, because of course there’s a lot of narratives that are created and artificial against people and democratic situations, but I don’t know if law is the answer. Like creating a specific rule that no one can cross- freedom of speech doesn’t work like that.
Greene: Is there anything else or any other story you wanted to tell?
I think I’ve said everything. I’d maybe say… of course it’s not an easy problem. If freedom of speech and content governance and everything was easy, we’d be out of a job, right? Sometimes I hope I’m out of a job, because that would mean a lot of people have guaranteed their rights to be free. Right? And that’s why I love freedom of speech, it has freedom in it! And for me freedom is a basic essence of what makes us human. And anyone that tries to attack that freedom, for me, is diminishing my capacity to be a human and my human dignity. That’s why I’m so passionate because just let me be, just let me share my ideas, just let me be free for fuck’s sake!