Honduras: new bill threatens to curb online speech

Legislators of the National Party of Honduras (the ruling party) have introduced a bill that endangers freedom of expression on the internet in that country.

During the first week of February the ruling party in Honduras introduced a controversial bill aimed at combating hatred and discrimination online. Hiding under its good intentions are dangerous provisions that are at odds with basic standards of freedom of expression and due process. The bill is particularly concerning because it contains provisions that could allow the government to silence dissent online. This further complicates the delicate human rights situation in Honduras and is especially troubling in the aftermath of recent reports that the government acquired digital espionage technology.

The bill, in its current state, requires any service or website that includes user-generated content to process complaints and remove “hate speech” or discriminatory content within 24 hours. Should online intermediaries fail to do so, their services could be fined or blocked. The latest draft of the bill also creates a national cybersecurity committee to receive reports and relay them to websites and companies, and to develop policy strategies on issues ranging from cybercrime to hate speech and fake news.

The problem with easy fixes

Cybercrime, hate speech, fake news, and online discrimination are sparking intense debate around the world — and for good reason. These issues are complex, and therefore require very well-thought out solutions that combine different strategies and go beyond mere punitive responses. They also demand the effective involvement of all interested parties (including civil society) in a manner that allows for extensive debate. There is a delicate balance to preserve, where the interest of the government in fighting crime must be considered together with democratic values, freedom of expression, and the development of the internet for economic, social, and cultural growth. That is why hasty solutions and easy fixes often bring new problems. The bill authored by House Representative Marcos Paz Sabillón is a typical example of this.

The bill’s overall approach raises a number of concerns. First, companies running websites or applications that deal with user-generated content would be forced to censor information by order from a special committee. There are no court orders or right to defense. This is wrong on many levels. Private actors should not be given legal prerogatives to decide whether content is lawful. Moreover, they should not be forced to act upon that judgement and remove information. In a democratic society, the task of evaluating the legality of a person’s conduct and deciding upon an appropriate sanction should belong to the judiciary, which is prepared to apply the law and balance the interests at stake (e.g. free speech vs. the interests of a victim of defamation).

Second, the bill proposes harsh penalties for internet intermediaries that fail to comply with these excessive obligations. They include fines and the blocking of websites and platforms. Blocking is an extreme and disproportionate measure that would punish thousands of law-abiding Honduran citizens for the misconduct of a few. The blocking of entire websites and services is a censorship measure equivalent to the censorship of a newspaper or a TV station. We explained the terrible implications behind widespread blockings in our publications on the WhatsApp block in Brazil back in 2016.

Finally, the bill provides for the creation of a cybersecurity committee, which would be responsible for the development of a cybersecurity strategy covering, among other issues, hate speech, fake news, and cybercrime in general. The mandate of the committee is confusing and excessively broad, and it does not allow for the kind of participatory process that is needed to shape public policy of this importance. Countries that have developed comprehensive cybersecurity strategies have held rich debates and hosted public consultations with members of academia, civil society, the private sector, the technical community, and the public sector. This requires previous agreements, clear rules, and an inclusive approach with the protection of citizens’ rights in mind.

The concerns around this bill are widespread in the digital rights community. The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Edison Lanza, has strongly criticized the bill, with arguments similar to those outlined here. Also, together with the Central American organization IPANDETEC, Access Now has circulated a joint statement from 51 human rights organizations asking the government to put the initiative away and find new ways of addressing online hate.

What you can do to help

Voting on this bill was postponed in the Honduran Congress this week, but it is likely to be rescheduled quickly, and urgent action is needed. Help share this post and the joint statement to spread the word about this threat to free expression.

You can also send a tweet to the Honduran Congress telling lawmakers to reject this bill and open future initiatives to public participation.

This post will be updated with more information.

(Updated Feb. 8)