Activists Win First Round against Big Brother in Paraguay


EspañolImagine that you can’t discuss politics openly with friends, that you have to be careful who you’re seen with in public, and what you say about the government. I’m not describing a dystopian novel, but rather a very real scenario for those who lived in Paraguay during the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989).

Los paraguayos se movilizaron para defender su privacidad. (Maricarmen Sequera)
“Hands off our freedom”: Paraguayans organized to defend their privacy. (Maricarmen Sequera)

The fascist regime deployed a complex network of informers across the country, the pyragüe, whose task was to spy on people for traces of dissent and order the arrest of their “subversive” neighbors. There were so many that they became an effective institution of social control. Paraguayans developed a fear of speaking freely. Self-censorship dominated.

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It’s probably this memory of the pyragüe among citizens, more than any legal argument, which led to the rejection of a controversial online data retention bill on Thursday, March 12, in Paraguay’s Chamber of Deputies. Senators had already passed the initiative, and it would have automatically passed if deputies hadn’t put it up for a vote.

The bill sought to force internet service providers (ISPs) to store the metadata of millions of citizens with the alleged goal of fighting terrorists and pedophiles, the two ubiquitous boogeymen of contemporary society.

In other words, the Paraguayan government sought to indiscriminately surveil who talked to whom, when, for how long, and from where.

The brave organization that stepped up to fight against this massive breach of privacy, Tedic, couldn’t have picked a better name for the campaign: pyrawebs. The specter of Stroessner’s snitches was back.

Tedic developed a program of talks, workshops, memes, media appearances, and even a party, until they were able to persuade a critical mass of people about the dangers of letting the state, trampling on the precept of innocence until proven guilty, to amass data about citizen’s online lives “just in case” a crime was committed.

Activists, technology geeks, lawyers, and journalists followed suit in denouncing the bill. They were supported by international organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Amnesty International, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, pointing out that the mandatory retention of metadata clashes with Articles 33 and 36 of Paraguay’s Constitution, which guarantee the right to privacy and the inviolability of private communications.

The bill furthers violates the principles of proportionality and due process by infringing on the communications of 7 million Paraguayans prior to the investigation of any crime whatsoever.

Due to the technical nature of the issue at hand, the campaign had to dispel several myths about combating crime on the internet. In fact, ISPs in Paraguay already store some metadata, so this invasive scheme is doubly unnecessary. The recent Electronic Commerce Law 4.868 already forces ISPs to store traffic and log users’ data for up to six months; this norm itself is unwarranted and should be repealed.

Even with public opinion on Tedic’s side, uncertainty reigned on Thursday. The Chamber of Deputies had already refused to vote last week, and legislative manoeuvrings to let bills pass automatically by not showing up are all too common among Paraguayan Congressmen.

But intense lobbying and citizen pressure on social media in the days prior to the parliamentary session put legislators under the spotlight. After two hours of intense debate, where some deputies changed their minds and a coalition of progressive parties denounced the bill’s real intentions, the floor decided to vote it down unanimously.

“Now efforts will need to make the senators feel the the weight of unanimous rejection, and craft a personal data protection bill. #Pyrawebs””

Pyrawebs now returns to the originating body, the Chamber of Senators, where it will need to secure a two-thirds majority within 120 days to override the deputies’ decision. President Horacio Cartes also has the right of veto over the law.

The second round thus begins, but even if freedom ends up winning this match, it certainly won’t be the last. Despite the unanimous vote against pyrawebs, several legislators have called for an “improved” data retention bill with more restrictions to prevent abuse. The need to watch the watchmen won’t end anytime soon.

Edited by Laurie Blair.

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