The digital mirror

A few weeks ago, I was asked by an expert on international Internet policy to describe what I think are the biggest threats to freedom of expression online in the region. While I have a well-rehearsed set of talking points on the particular situation in Cuba, Latin America is different, and very difficult to conceptualize as a region when it comes to Internet policy. So I rattled off whatever was circling around in my brain at the time—threats of violence against journalists, laws that can be used to limit expression, and the lurking, ever-present, and impossible to quantify “self-censorship.”

One of the reasons that Latin America (perhaps with the exception of Cuba) is often left out of the conversation about Internet policy and freedom of expression online is that it’s a region where technical filtering is pretty rare. This is a good thing. Yet in many countries, freedom of expression online is nevertheless very much at risk.

Internet cafe in San Jose del Pacifico, Oaxaca. I checked my email and then took this photograph.

In Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, escalating levels of violence and organized crime have made violent threats against journalists and bloggers commonplace. In communities where rather than Spanish, K’iche, Quechua, or Aymara* are the most commonly spoken languages, online content is often inaccessible because of language barriers. And throughout Latin America, levels of Internet accessibility match the glaring unevenness of economic development in the region: every megalopolis is saturated with WiFi, Internet cafes, and soaring cell phone towers while rural areas are left wireless, literally.

Not surprisingly, the conversation about free expression online in Latin America tends to focus on Cuba and Venezuela, two countries that explicitly limit expression within their legal codes. They form an obvious (though certainly necessary) target because the laws are concrete—it is clear to advocates of Internet freedom what needs to be changed. But in the examples above, the root causes are much broader, and some are deeply entrenched in histories that began centuries before the Cuban revolution. How does one build a framework for improving freedom of expression online when it is directly tied to a drug war, chronic underdevelopment, or the marginalization of indigenous communities in a region that is linguistically dominated by the language of an old empire?

Of course I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I want to begin thinking about them as legitimate queries within the larger tech-and-society conversation about international freedom of expression on the Internet. If there is one thing I’ve learned about Cuba that can inform how we think about Internet policy in other national contexts, it is that national identity, ideology, and economic and political structure are the root determinants of the life of the Internet in any society—to look at a country’s Internet policy is often like holding a mirror to its political identity. This is all to say that in the cases of many Latin American countries, I think it is time to take a closer look.


*While language barriers are far from overcome, there are many great online projects devoted to increasing indigenous language content online. One example is the Global Voices Bolivia team, which is making great strides with the GV Aymara page.


4 thoughts on “The digital mirror

  1. PolO says:

    (perhaps with the exception of Cuba)“?
    Oh, Come on! Cuba perhaps with the exception of North Korea it is the WWW black hole; even Sub-Saharan Africa is laying out the wires from the Kenya hub.

    1. halfwired says:

      Thanks for your comment. My point here was that Cuba is easy to identify as a state the explicitly (under law) restricts Internet access for citizens, while in other Latin American states, it is harder to see exactly how people are restricted in their Internet use.

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