Access and partners demand DHS investigate GoDaddy domain takedown

Today, Access and our partners Electronic Frontier Foundation, Derechos Digitales, and Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales sent a letter to President Obama and Secretary of Homeland Security Johnson demanding an immediate investigation into what appears to be U.S. government complicity in silencing political speech in Mexico.

On December 2, 2013, the domain (the site now redirects; see an archived version here) a website documenting human right violations taking place during public protests in Mexico, was suspended by its host GoDaddy at the behest of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Although the site’s content was legal and indeed protected speech under both Mexican and U.S. law, the site was blocked for three months.

Disturbingly, a US official implied that this takedown may be part of a larger trend. At GoDaddy’s insistence, Mexican human rights lawyer Luis Fernando García, who also represents Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales, contacted Special Agent Jason Barry at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City — the agent GoDaddy says requested the takedown. Asked why the site had been censored, Agent Barry replied, “This happens all the time … Mexican agencies send us requests for U.S. companies and we have contacts with some of them so we just send them.”

The site’s suspension was mysteriously lifted the day after García and held a press conference on the takedown.

Rule of law and human rights online

Despite its pronouncements in favor of internet freedom and protection of human rights online, the U.S. government has yet to account for its role in this incident.

At Access’ recent RightsCon Silicon Valley event, the U.S. State Department warned that “more governments are seeking to control what information and news their people are allowed to see online,” and called for world governments to protect user rights on the internet.

Recognizing this call to action, today’s letter states, “Facilitating the censorship of a website based on its political content is inconsistent with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, U.S. human rights obligations, and the government’s stated commitments to uphold the rule of law and internet freedom as foreign policy priorities.” Any requests from law enforcement agencies abroad for domain takedowns should be processed in line with international legal standards on due process. The Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty system offers one means to accomplish this. However, all signs point to a failure to follow proper procedures in this case.

For his part, García, a co-signatory of today’s letter, filed a lawsuit in Mexico City on December 24 alleging violations of the Mexican Constitution and the American Convention on Human Rights. He is still waiting for responses from two Mexican agencies to his suit.

Access and the other signatories expect a prompt reply from US government officials to today’s letter, which specifically asks: which policies are in place for takedown requests; whether those policies were followed; and what remedial steps will be taken. Additionally, the letter asks the U.S. to name the Mexican agency that originally made the request. In sum, those responsible for this takedown — whether in the Mexican or U.S. governments — must publicly account for their role and take steps to ensure ensure such complicity in censorship will not be repeated.