SECRET shakes up Guatemalan society

by Digital Rights LAC on October 29, 2014


Authorities in Guatemala flirt with the idea of regulating social networks and applications, because presumably many of them have the potential of promoting abuse. Does the country need such measures?

By Renata Avila, World Wide Web Foundation.

Guatemala has long enjoyed a relative calm in terms of censorship and control of its Internet usage, despite having other regulatory issues related to radio spectrum distribution and media diversity. This is without considering an incident in which a Twitter user was arrested for “inciting financial panic” and sent to jail in what truly became a political scandal. The man’s sentence was later overturned.

Although connectivity is low and its broadband access is considered the worst on the continent (less than 4%), Guatemala enjoys a high level of mobile connectivity. To this day, there is only a single draft law on the protection of personal data, which has been abandoned since 2009, plus a few other scattered laws on social networks.

Nevertheless, there are two laws, which somehow go unnoticed for most of the authorities, which actually govern online activities. The Protection of Children and Young Persons Act (PINA), which has the traits of a public order law, stating that children have a right to be protected from harmful information, together with the Mobile Terminal Equipment Act, which imposes a registry of cell phone users, creating databases of phones associated with personal identification documents. The latter can also be applied without a warrant in order for the authorities to obtain information about the location and identity of users and calls. This law also establishes the crime of conspiracy through the use of electronic devices, even if the crime has not been committed, opening the possibility for electronic surveillance of all kinds.

In early September, after an increase of activity in Guatemala surrounding the application known as SECRET, the Vice President of the nation, Roxana Baldetti, announced the urgent need to take action on this matter in order to “protect” children from the dangers of this application, which she branded as a tool for spreading “sexual violence, child pornography and bullying”.

The vice president then delegated the head of the Telecommunications Authority (SIT), who acts as the regulator of companies providing mobile services and Internet telephony, with the task of addressing this issue and requested the acquisition of equipment to carry out a comprehensive program which would identify the users of the SECRET application, including their geographical location and personal identity. More than a month after these statements, nothing appears to have been registered on the SIT transparency website regarding the acquisition of such equipment.

A government coalition was established, consisting of the Attorney General, the Attorney-General’s Office, the Presidential Commissioner for Transparency, e-government and the Superintendent of Telecommunications. Its mission was to request that, through a court order, the distribution of the application be suspended in Guatemala.

This joint action was followed by an unfortunate announcement made by the Executive on the regulation of social networks in Guatemala, through the inclusion of amendments in the Bill of Computer Crimes, which had been pending for further discussion and approval, by adding the Moral and Integrity Law for Computer Based Communications. The text has not yet been published by the Congress of Guatemala and in a country where the use of social networks increases by the day, it poses a great risk of censorship and control, particularly as we approach 2015, when the country will have its next general election.

However, there is still no injunction prohibiting SECRET. The threat of application regulations could possibly be requested by the Executive agency or through a court order via a new law.

Supporters of the measure, such as the Nomada newspaper, consider that banning the application is a correct measure, due to its use in Guatemala to denigrate and destroy the reputation of women in a country where levels of violence and the murder of women are among the highest in the world.

However, the general view among journalists and lawyers is that the regulation of social networks could erode citizens’ privacy during critical times, both politically and socially. The legal framework of Guatemala, which generally includes regulating libel and slander, child abuse and verbal violence against women, make it unnecessary to administrate such specific topics given that illegal conducts are already criminalized regardless of the means used to perpetrate them.

It also opens the opportunity for those in power to pursue and monitor opponents and critical voices. Moreover, it is questionable whether this type of regulation on social networks will substantially modify violent and demeaning social behavior, which are not exclusive to the use of an application, but seen every day as part of general social behavior.


Renata is the Global Campaigns Manager for the Web We Want initiative. of the World Wide Web Foundation.