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Four signs Mexico is embracing digital authoritarianism 

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The Pegasus revelations are making headlines across the globe. But in Mexico, the use of NSO Group’s spyware to attack civil society is relatively old news, and there is a lot more to worry about when it comes to digital rights. Lawmakers are implementing harmful public policies, excluding civil society organizations (CSOs) from most conversations and taking an offensive stance toward critics. This has resulted in a digital rights crisis in Mexico, with lawmakers imitating the policies and tactics of authoritarian regimes. Below, we explore four key developments, and explain why the international community should be paying attention to what’s going on. 

Mexican CSOs raise the alarm at RightsCon

On June 11 at this year’s RightsCon summit, Mexican CSOs gathered with representatives of international bodies and institutions to discuss the many issues Mexico is facing and call for international attention. Here are some of the most worrying initiatives, the reflections panelists shared, and why CSOs are warning that Mexico’s government is moving toward authoritarianism. 

Four pages from the authoritarian playbook

1. Mexico is ramping up deployment of surveillance tech, despite Pegasus

In the past few years, the Mexican government has steadily increased its surveillance capabilities. It was in 2017 that Mexican citizens learned their government was allegedly using NSO’s Pegasus spyware and now the Forbidden Stories investigation has evidence to suggest it has been used to select, target, or infect the phones of at least 15,000 people in Mexico, from journalists to Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the current president of the country. For more than four years there has been an open investigation into Pegasus, but with no major progress. Meanwhile,  there’s evidence to show that the current government is acquiring more surveillance tools. One system allows public agencies to geolocate more than  130,000 phone numbers, even though court orders authorized such a measure for only 130 phones.

Mexico is also deploying dangerous and harmful facial recognition technology without regulations or oversight. Pedro Vaca, Special Rapporteur for Freedom Of Expression for the Organization of American States, and Jean-Pierre Bou from the E.U. Delegation to Mexico agreed that Mexico should review its current laws and conduct an independent investigation to ensure clear limits on the government’s power to surveil the public, and guarantee that the government follows universal rights and principles of international law like necessity and proportionality.

To preserve a democratic approach to governance, Mexico must avoid replicating the tactics of authoritarian regimes. In China, the government uses facial recognition cameras to persecute the Uyghur Muslim community. In Indonesia, the government uses it to persecute the LGTBQ+ community, as well as to crackdown on political dissent, investigating citizens who criticize the president and other government officials. This is not the pathway Mexico should take.

2. Mexico is creating a massive biometric database to identify everyone using a mobile phone

On April 13, the Mexican Senate approved the National Register of Mobile Telephone Users (Padrón Nacional de Usuarios de Telefonía Móvil), creating a mandatory registry of Mexicans’ cell phone lines, associated with their biometric identity. This is a direct threat to the freedom, privacy, and security of all citizens. Not only does the registry violate the presumption of innocence, treating all phone users as though they are criminals, it is expensive and creates a database that is a highly attractive target for cyberattacks. As Luis Fernando García, Executive Director of Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales, explained at RightsCon, “our right to access to information technologies (a right that is recognized in the constitution) will be severed.”

No fully free or democratic country requires people to provide highly sensitive biometric data for the purchase of a SIM card. Among the 12 other countries that are deploying this authoritarian tactic are China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Venezuela, and the United Arab Emirates. In Myanmar, before the coup, the government expanded its surveillance capabilities using mandatory SIM card registration, as it allowed authorities to monitor, identify, harass, and prosecute members of minority groups or, indeed, any individual who speaks up against the government. Just like in Myanmar, Mexico has not implemented proper safeguards for the collection of biometric data, nor have Mexican government agencies that conduct surveillance made any commitment to transparency. 

3. Mexico is threatening liability protections for internet platforms and proposing “fake news” laws to enable censorship

On February 8, Senator Ricardo Monreal made public his initiative on regulation of social networks, proposing measures that threaten freedom of expression. The proposal would require social media platforms with more than a million users to be authorized by Mexico’s telecoms regulator to offer their services online, a requirement no other democratic country has implemented. The platforms would also have to put in place policies to censor content under broad, vague, and ambiguous terms, such as to “eliminate the spread of hateful messages,” “prevent the spread of false news,” and “protect personal data.” All of this opens the door wide to government control of the flow of information online.

Gabriela Gorjón, member of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Mexico, warns “we must be careful: the establishment of new rules on communication which create a new set of legal obligations for the platforms…can create a new shade of opportunities for abuse of power by governments.” That is exactly what has been happening since 2018, when many authoritarian governments, like Nicaragua, Belarus, and Malaysia,  adopted similar measures to silence criticism. 

4. Mexico is attacking civil society organizations directly

In March 2021, President Obrador openly attacked the civil society organization ARTICLE 19 after they published a report exposing government attacks against journalists and state violations of the right to freedom of expression. ARTICLE 19 has been documenting the government’s coordinated attacks on human rights defenders and journalists, which are clearly aimed at deflecting accountability and silencing critics. At RightsCon, Martha Tudón of ARTICLE 19 explained that by doing this, the government is “attacking not only the people who are questioning them, but also the people who are protecting the people who question them,” adding, “Copyright, data protection, and other laws are used to censor public interest information that includes public claims of state violence and corruption.”

State attacks on civil society are extremely dangerous. In its report,  Human Rights Defenders Under Threat,  Amnesty International explains that “stigmatization can have the effect of inciting government sympathizers against human rights defenders, putting them at further risk, even of physical attacks and killings, at the hands of pro-government armed groups or other non-state actors, for example.” This too is an authoritarian tactic. In Venezuela, authorities routinely verbally attack human rights defenders, Amnesty International reports. In Georgia, after 13 CSOs issued a statement on state corruption and demanded a government response, high-level government officials launched a media campaign to smear the human rights defenders seeking accountability. 

How the world can back Mexican civil society in the fight for digital rights

Solidarity matters, and CSOs in Mexico are calling on the international community for their support. In addition to the above-mentioned issues, Mexicans are facing government corruption, threats to net neutrality, persecution of the LGTBQ+ population, and the abuse of copyright laws to censor independent media, voices that are holding the government to account.

It is essential that Mexico’s government get back on the path of respect for human rights. In order for that to happen, Mexico’s laws and policies must protect journalists, activists, and members of civil society. We at Access Now urge international human rights bodies, the media, regional alliances, and public figures, to pay attention to what’s happening in Mexico and collaborate with human rights defenders in the country.

To do your part to support Mexican civil society:

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