CPJ Internet Channel

Defending Free Expression Online


On his blog, El Oso, David Sasaki has just finished up the third and last part in his series, "Internet Censorship and Freedom of Expression in Latin America." It's a brilliant overview of current political and social pressures on free speech and online reporting in the region.

Some key observations:

  • Direct governmental censorship in Latin America remains largely non-existent. Even occasional "murky," anecdotal evidence is mostly confined to Cuba and perhaps Venezuela. Sasaki does a great job of collating what's been rumored so far. The OpenNet Initiative has said it will shortly publish updated research.

  • Litigation over content is the most widespread threat to free expression online across the region. As CPJ has reported for many years, criminal defamation laws and overbroad judicial decisions affect independent journalism in many Latin American countries. The large numbers of ongoing cases against individual Net users and their hosting services show that this risk has not diminished online.

  • Brazil and Chile are leading the way in attempts to create Internet-era regulation, with broad participation. Other countries could learn a lot from watching how this new body of law develops, despite occasional missteps (or perhaps because of them).

The above will not surprise close watchers of the Latin American Internet, and it certainly fits with CPJ's own observations there. The real meat of this article, though, lies in the examples. From decades old videos of famous censored Argentine satire to a brief glimpse of the world of Mexican botnets (a collection of hijacked computers used remotely by criminals), it's a compelling and informative read. Check out part one, an overview of the idea of Internet regulation; part two, a survey of intermediary liability cases in the region; and part three, which offers a closer look at direct Net censorship in Latin America, as well as brief glances at Net neutrality, privacy and cybercrime.

The New York Times reports on a new decision in the liability of internet intermediaries, this time in Argentia. It's often hard to pick apart exactly what's been going on in jurisdictions where this issue still evolving. Generally, you get a flurry of conflicting court decision in favour of absolute liability for Net middle-men, usually followed by a re-appraisal by calmer minds once the ramifications of having all the major web services effectively guilty for anything anyone ever said, anywhere online, begin to sink in.

In Argentina, the pattern seems to be that search engines were being sued by hundreds of litigants for the content and context of their results. In this particular case images (or the name) of an entertainer were being used by adult sites; she sued Yahoo and Google for defamation, and a lower court decided in her favor. Over at Ars Technica, commenter Pablius gives a link to the earlier decision (in Spanish; Google translation here).

Sure enough, the lower court declared that because search engines can filter specific content, then they are liable in all cases where they do not create such filters pre-emptively. The new decision overturns that. It may yet go to Argentina's Supreme Court.

The biggest risk in these times of flux isn't that these big corporations will be sued into oblivion; it's that the issue of liability continues to remain ambiguous. Panicky companies try to avoid being sued by over-censoring or filtering content, which chills the ability of individual bloggers and journalists to use the Net for unfiltered free speech.

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The CPJ Internet Channel examines the battle for free expression online.

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12 Internet cases in 2014