In Ecuador, if you slander or libel another person, including a government official, you’re guilty unless and until you prove yourself innocent.
That case threatened to shut down the entire newspaper and throw hundreds of employees out of work. The president won the case, but he was smart enough to settle for public apologies and no monetary penalties, which kept the paper open.
The libel and slander law in Ecuador works for individual citizens and owned entities, such as print media, along with television and radio stations. Even the owners of websites and blogs can be sued. But how do you keep defamation in check on social networks, where the owners are outside the country, and those doing the defaming can use false identities?
Well, Ecuador’s rulers have decided to do something about it — or at least try.
Determining the identity of someone posting on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks is neither simple nor easy. The Ecuadorian government might get that information, if it were for national security reasons. But for defamation cases, most social networks refuse to become involved.
So how can Ecuador go about determining who’s defaming whom on social networks? At the time of writing, the government is considering placing video cameras in every internet cafe in the country.
There are several flaws to the plan, the least of which is the ridiculous cost of implementing it. Before we get to the flaws, let’s discuss the major inequity of it.
Poor vs. Rich
Compared to the basic minimum wage here in Ecuador, having internet service in a home is hugely expensive. The cost of internet in a city or town large enough to have wired service is at least 6 percent of the minimum wage, and that’s for wired internet at less than 2-2.5 Mbit/second service.
It’s almost impossible to obtain a wired phone line in Ecuador, and coaxial cable internet is only available in the cities and the largest towns. That leaves millions to use cellular or wireless internet (not to be confused with wifi), both of which are even more expensive, for even slower service.
What’s the point I’m getting to? That it’s the poor who use internet cafes, since they can’t afford or just don’t have access to the types of internet service that preclude visual snooping. So it’s only the poor who will be under camera surveillance if the government goes through with its plan to monitor internet cafes.
We also have to ask, who benefits from this enforcement? Will the Ecuadorian government allow a person suing someone else for slander to have access to all the video recordings, and all the data collected from ISPs?
Or is this a plan to eliminate public dissent about the government? With the decision to start drilling for oil in Yasuní National Park, and the president’s decision to eliminate the presidential two-term limit, the government has watched its opponents use the power of social networks to criticize these decisions.
At what point does the government decide that criticism is slander?
As I noted, there are flaws to this monitoring plan.
I mentioned the cost, which is likely to be ridiculously high for the value to be gained. Consider that at least one camera will have to be installed in every internet cafe. That means a camera in just about every phone cabina in the country too, since most also have internet. There are thousands of cabinas in Ecuador, due to the difficulty in obtaining a residential phone line.
Here are the other flaws I’ve come up with. You may think of more.
- Video monitoring is out, as it’s simply incapable of monitoring everyone — particularly those who do not wish to be monitored. While the poor are stuck using cafes, the middle class and the rich have internet service inside their homes — and they will never allow government surveillance inside their homes. They would shut Ecuador down until that law were rescinded. They’ve done it before, and while the citizenry have become complacent over the past few years, for an intrusion that big, they’d go on strike again.
Malls, restaurants, universities, hotels and, airports now provide free wifi service throughout Ecuador. Can the government get away with adding video cameras to every building offering wifi? I see a countrywide shutdown coming on if this is attempted.
Cellular internet means that anyone sitting on a beach or a mountaintop can use Facebook and Twitter. No fear of video monitoring there (although I suppose real-time satellite surveillance is possible).With video surveillance impractical, if not impossible, the only other option is checking internet service provider (ISP) logs.
- Checking ISP logs to find a slanderer means checking the logs of at least two cable TV companies, at least three national phone companies, three cellular service providers, and dozens of regional or local wireless service providers. Of course, that only deals with the people who post from inside the country. Ecuador will never receive permission to examine log files from other countries for simple defamation reasons.
- Even those inside the country can post to social networks without ever being traced. They can set up a throwaway email address with false personal info at Gmail, Yahoo! Mail or Outlook.com, then create a false account at Facebook or Twitter based on that email address.Yes, it’s against the terms of service to do that. But Facebook has over one billion users; Twitter over 500 million. It’s unlikely that either one will ever notice a fake account until someone directs them to it. And then what? Track and hand over the IP addresses used to make the defamatory remarks? Not without a court order in the United States.
- As further protection, anyone intent on defamation will use a proxy service to hide his/her IP address when posting to social networks. That adds another round of court orders in a country where Ecuador has no jurisdiction.
The Only Option Left
If the video camera idea is a no-go, since they’ll only monitor a portion of the population, checking ISP logs is similarly impractical. The fact is that with so many methods available to hide one’s true identity, it is very difficult to catch and accuse anyone who doesn’t want to be caught.
So it will likely remain impossible, in Ecuador at least, to sue someone for slander on social networks hosted outside of the country.
The only way the Ecuadorian government will ever be able to control slander on Twitter and Facebook will be to censor Twitter and Facebook. Restricting access to social networks would invite accusations of repression of freedom of speech that the Correa government may not be able to gloss over, but other nations have shown that it can be done.
However, a far easier course of action would be to decriminalize defamation, and let the Ecuadorians, particularly their politicians, grow a thicker skin.
Something very bad, almost baffling, is taking place in Spain, Greece, and other countries in the European Union: more than a third of the population under the age of 35 are now unemployed. Almost everywhere in the union, the problem affects a huge share of the working-age population — and we are not talking about employees without formal education. These are young people who have successfully negotiated all stages in the education system, even earning PhDs in many cases. What reasons can lead developed societies to show a social imbalance so deep and negative that it threatens to break the stability of their way of life and their future development prospects? Let us enrich the discussion with more information, which, though seemingly unrelated to the aforementioned situation, never fails to astonish me: in almost all countries in Europe, and in many others around the world, the share of the government in economic activity hovers around or over 50 percent. Even in the best of cases, it is well over 40 percent. We know that governments are not productive or consumer-oriented companies; rather, they are institutions that go about spending tax money they take from other people. In other words, around half of what many nations produce winds up in the government’s hands through taxes. How is that huge amount of money fundamentally spent? Part of it naturally goes to law enforcement, bureaucracy, payment for the government’s administrative functions, and infrastructure projects. However, the greater share, at least in Europe and Japan, is directed to two other items: servicing public debt and what is commonly known as “the welfare state”: pensions, a wide range of health care services, education, and, in many cases, housing and entertainment. Evidently, the gargantuan tax burden faced by companies limits their investment capabilities, which impedes production and job creation. The fact that the available workforce is highly skilled is irrelevant: the problem is not one of lack of qualifications — not enough people with the skills required for a particular job — but the fact that an enormous education system is flooding the market with graduates who have no way of finding a productive position. The obstacle to economic development is not the lack of education, as one usually hears, but an education system inconsistent with the economy’s real possibilities. This problem is compounded by the little stimuli or incentive available to those who wish to create a productive company, and the significant barriers erected before them, defended with very spurious arguments. Mired in growing debt, ever-harder to pay, most developed economies are torn between trying to inject stimuli into the economy — with money they lack — or simply yielding and accepting terrible recessions which would exacerbate the already unbearable level of unemployment. This is the crossroads now facing most developed nations, which consistently fail to find a convincing solution to their woes. The root of the problem, however, lies not in how to stimulate the economy and jump-start growth again, but in the expansive welfare state built over the last few decades. The terrible pressure this system exerts on public finances and the many restrictions it imposes on private companies make its upkeep impossible, and it cancels all possibility of recovering growth. These social programs have become virtually untouchable by the population and most analysts: they are seen as rights, just as sacred as natural rights, because everyone likes having guaranteed healthcare, education, pensions, and many other benefits. However, people tend to forget that these benefits are not actually “rights,” but disbursements of significant magnitude that governments make with money they take from other citizens. Nothing is free, even if it seems so, and these societies may have reached the uncomfortable moment when they have to cough up the bill. It will be a long time, I suppose, before politicians and common citizens in these countries accept the hard truth that you cannot receive benefits without matching effort — that there is no such thing as a free lunch, as they say. In the meantime, we should ask both those politicians and the leaders of many international institutions to please refrain from prescribing the same medicine that, through their irresponsible policies, have left them with this worrying social disease.