Growing dissatisfaction with political leadership. Social and economic constraints. Reprisals  against austerity measures. Harassment against community and political leaders. All issues that in different combinations have led to massive protests and political upheaval in recent months in Latin America. They have left a mark in 2019 and, along with them, a series of hurdles for online free expression and privacy

While technology has been used to mobilize citizens, report violence, and share security and legal advice for protesters in places like Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, and Bolivia, tech-related measures were employed to censor, dissuade demonstrations, and increase surveillance.

 Digital and human rights groups have been reporting abuses and offering critical guidance on how to stay safe. Their work is crucial and feeds into this post, where we will outline some of those abuses and threats in their intersection with technology.

 Internet Shutdowns: Disconnecting Speech and Dissent

 Having trouble communicating and getting online during periods of social unrest is not unusual. This may occur because of network congestion, especially in protests zones. But it can also stem from deliberate government action to block and disrupt Internet connections. In Ecuador, NetBlocks reports allow us to infer some level of government interference, although there’s no conclusive evidence on that role yet.

 NetBlocks’ first report shows a temporary disruption affecting the subscribers of the state-run company Corporación Nacional de Telecomunicaciones (CNT) between October 6-7. It prevented users from reaching servers where social networks store multimedia content. The report highlights that network measurements corroborate many users’ grievances when trying to post audio, photos, and videos during the disruption period. It also stresses a curious match: the restrictions began around the same time users started posting about military deployments on the streets of Quito and the death of a protester.

 A few days later, a second report found that the mobile operator Claro had been affected by a multi-hour outage. It first covered much of the country during a short period and then continued localized in Quito for several hours. Also, while protests persisted, Telefónica Movistar released a statement saying that part of its telecommunications infrastructure was affected by unknown actors, which could lead to degradations in service. A report prepared by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), along with other organizations, underlines that interruption in the state’s fiberoptic cabling could impact other telecom operators, like Movistar, that use those cables to provide their services.

Other countries in the region, such as Nicaragua and Venezuela, have experienced acute political crisis and protests, with internet disruptions this year. Interference with Internet access is a lingering problem in Venezuela. In mid-November, the state-owned Internet provider ABA CANTV restricted access to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube on the morning of planned political demonstrations against the government.

 Hurdles to Protest Online and, of course, On The Streets  

 Dissuasion, harassment, and surveillance are all part of efforts to curtail demonstrations. In Colombia, Fundación Karisma underscored the communication campaign the government carried out to discourage protest, using state institutions’ social media and sending SMS messages before the massive mobilization planned for November 21. A few days earlier, the country’s Police Cyber Center sent a request to the Universidad de Los Andes to remove a self-protection manual against the police forces that a magazine linked to the institution had published online. The request asked for the university to assess the elimination of that content, claiming it incited violence in protests and contained offensive information about the police.

 Conversely, reports and records on police actions justify the need for a self-protection manual. The abuses include “stop and frisk” during demonstrations, requiring access to private information on protesters’ mobile phones—reported in Colombia and Bolivia—as well as harassment against those trying to record unlawful actions. In Chile, police forces avoided being recorded by misleading protesters that it was illegal or through violence and arbitrary detention. Derechos Digitales’ report highlights instances of forced confiscation and destruction of mobile phones used to record police actions. InternetBolivia has found similar cases during demonstrations in La Paz carried out by the security forces and also by protesters.

 On the other hand, governments have plenty of recording devices. The Metropolitan Municipality of Santiago de Chile has recently announced an increase in the number of surveillance cameras and the implementation of a facial recognition system in the city. In parallel, the Chilean Senate approved a bill that worsens penalties for protesters who cover their faces during demonstrations. In Colombia, authorities took the protests opportunity to announce the launch of cameras with the ability to identify, in real-time, the features around the eyes and nose of people who have their faces covered. Over 90 drones were also used to monitor the November 21 demonstrations in Bogotá.

 Authorities also seem to have been tracking social networks and devices. Derechos Digitales has received complaints of police investigations and intimidation based on information gathered through social network monitoring. The same report points out the possible use of malicious software against Daniel Urrutia, the judge in an ongoing case about allegations of torture inside a Santiago metro station. Urrutia also issued a ruling to ensure human rights advocates could enter a medical facility that was hindering their access to people injured by gunshots. These matters are under investigation by Chilean authorities and by Derechos Digitales in an independent examination. Likewise, surveys conducted by APC, Digital Defenders Partnership, Taller de Comunicación Mujer, and La show that at least one of the respondents experienced a set of anomalous incidents regarding his devices during the period of demonstrations in Ecuador.

 Content Moderation is Broken, Especially in Troubled Political Contexts

 EFF has reported on the complexities of content moderation on social media platforms and how current ways of addressing violent and extremist content often miss the mark and silence marginalized communities. We are seeing these same problems play out in troubled political contexts in Latin America. Grievances about content restriction popped up in Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Colombia (reconsidered here).

A survey carried out by Fundación Datos Protegidos in Chile during October 23-27 indicates that problems in posting content, account removals, and removal of specific posts were the three main issues users reported. Among cases involving Instagram, which are at the top of the censorship reporting list, accounts focused on music and humor, some with several thousand followers, changed their approach during the state of emergency to denounce the violations taking place. Many accounts particularly committed to reporting on protests have disappeared (Instagram) or had their traffic downranked (Facebook). Twitter has registered fewer of these cases.

 Restricting graphically violent content deserves special attention in social unrest contexts. Photos and videos of people injured or depicting strong scenes of conflict or repression can be critical to inform about and document human rights violations. Restricting them may seriously hinder the work of investigators, journalists, and advocates, as we've seen before. Additionally, content about heated political polarization is prone to abuse in platforms’ online complaint mechanisms. As noted in Derechos Digitales' report, abusers can take advantage of gray areas in platform policies to target and silence supporters of accounts devoted to reporting on demonstrations and police violence. Both digital rights groups have stressed the lack of proper notification of takedowns and processes to appeal content decisions, which hampers the crucial role social media platforms still play in raising awareness, providing information, and sharing evidence of rights violations.

Free Expression and the Right to Protest

The UN Human Rights Council last year called on nations to recognize everyone’s rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, implying the ability to organize, participate in and observe peaceful protests, and follow their progress and record them. This includes protests on the streets and online. Using communications technologies safely and privately is key to freedom of expression in the form of demonstrations and protests. The interplay of those rights entails a set of safeguards that governments in Latin America are failing to ensure. The freedom to speak out, organize, and gather to practice that right is under threat as a result. EFF has endorsed a public statement condemning the actions this post outlines and we'll remain vigilant about developments in 2020.

This article is part of our Year in Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2019.