Ecuador vs. Social Network Slander

Childish Insecurity of Politicians Poses Loss for Every Ecuadorian

In Ecuador, if you slander or libel another person, including a government official, you’re guilty unless and until you prove yourself innocent.

President Rafael Correa won hundreds of thousands of dollars a few years back as a result of a lawsuit against Banco Pichincha. Last year, he also won against a Guayaquil newspaper, El Universo.

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Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. Source: Index on Censorship

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.

Who Benefits?

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?

The Flaws

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.

What’s left? Censorship, à la China and even developed nations such as Australia.

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.

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