How did a small Paraguayan NGO help defeat a bill that would have forced ISPs to retain customer information for 12 months?
When a data-retention bill was introduced in Paraguay’s senate in mid-2014, the TEDIC Association, a relatively new organisation defending digital rights in the country, sat up and took notice. TEDIC knew that if the bill passed in the nation’s Chamber of Deputies, the privacy and personal information of all Paraguayans would be compromised. With the help of international partners and an engaged public, they launched a campaign called #Pyrawebs to convince the Deputies to reject the bill as proposed, and in March 2015 they were successful. In June, their success was repeated when the Senate also rejected the bill.
Just before the bill was headed back to the Senate for reforms, and the campaign moved into its second stage, IFEX Americas Section Editor, Erin Woycik, asked TEDIC’s director, Maricarmen Sequera, about the campaign and how they helped people see the connection between a potentially abstract digital law and the impact it would have on their rights and freedoms.
First, for general context: Who introduced the Pyrawebs bill in Paraguay, and who was most interested in seeing that it was passed?
The Attorney General’s Office of the Republic and the Ministry of the Interior were responsible for drafting the bill and lobbying National Congress to find senators interested in moving the bill forward in Congress. They were able to get four senators from different parties.
The Cyber Crimes Unit (currently consisting of 3 public prosecutors) has the greatest interest in this bill because it has a judicial training agreement with the United States, through the OAS and USAID Projects: Threshold Program II (UMBRAL).
What was the primary objective of your campaign? Were there also secondary objectives?
The primary objective was to get the data retention bill rejected. The secondary objectives were to initiate discussion on digital rights in Paraguay, and to increase the credibility of TEDIC , which is a young organization and the only organization defending digital rights in Paraguay.
In the beginning, what were the main challenges you expected, and how did you address them?
As mentioned, our main challenge was initiating discussion on the human rights compromised by this bill. Many of the arguments against the bill have circulated through various channels using #pyrawebs as a means of reference. These arguments were born out of thorough investigation done by specialized digital rights professionals, whose work was a crucial starting point for this campaign. Once we became aware of the bill in mid-2014, we knew that we needed to urgently halt its approval; however, we first needed to prepare our argument.
Maricarmen Sequera, a lawyer and TEDIC team expert, who was then joined by Katitza Rodríguez from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and later by Javier Palleros of Accessnow.org, conducted an exhaustive analysis of the bill and put together the organization’s position. With a clear and strong stance on the subject, we created simple messages that were easy to share and that would reach the people.
The name of the campaign was key to making the public aware of the issue. The word comes from the Guaraní language, where the word “pyrague” has important meaning in Paraguayan history. From the beginning, the Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship has been the closest and most impactful analogy we have found for representing the kind of society that these kinds of laws construct. The word was then adapted with the Internet in mind, and “Pyrawebs” moulded this campaign into one that was 50% about communication; a campaign for both those who do and do not use the Internet in their daily lives in Paraguay. This was a risk as many people still support Stronism , and so we struck a balance by also drawing upon notions such as ‘Big Brother’ and emphasizing the unconstitutional nature of the bill. One of the most successful initiatives was the Twitter handle #Pyrawebs, which allowed us to send Twitter messages to every deputy in the Chamber, and call for them to reject the bill.
The second challenge was to strengthen Internet users’ digital rights capabilities through general public privacy workshops, two webinars, two public hearings, and four lectures at universities. In total, approximately 400 people participated.
In these workshops, we found out who had become important information disseminators: young programmers, communicators, lawyers, and others. Another important initiative has been the screening of the Citizenfour documentary. Here we saw the kind of abuse that can take place at the hands of government, if they are capable of intercepting private communication among citizens. We also took this opportunity to call for action against the bill, which would soon be brought before the Chamber of Deputies.
Did any unexpected challenges arise during the campaign?
Everything was against us, for various reasons: we are a small and new organization, which means we still lack credibility. We deal with a small sector of the population, and we do not have experience lobbying Congress or with the local press.
The challenges that came about at the beginning of the campaign really were unforeseen. We did not expect to achieve unanimous rejection of the bill in the Chamber of Deputies. The challenge now is that the second phase of the campaign consists of the same method for reaching unanimity in the Senate, which will be unlikely, given shifts in the political climate.
A campaign can feel like a roller-coaster ride. For you, was there a low point that stands out? A high point?
• The first part of the campaign was only intelligible to technologically-inclined individuals. When we talked about the technical aspects of the law, we had a very small audience; the general public did not understand that their rights were being compromised. It was quite the opposite when the communication became clear, easy, fun and compelling. The lesson learned is that delving into technical terms only helps people to recognize us as “experts” on the matter, but not as an organization capable of mobilizing a massive campaign.
• No funding. “Our pockets are filled with enthusiasm,” but we had no financial resources for carrying out the campaign. This made it difficult for the TEDIC team to be 100% a part of the project. In the last three months of the campaign, the entire group working on the project decided to put all their energy into raising funds for lectures, campaign promotion, transportation to interviews, the pintata (a mural painting event) and a party. In the second phase, we will not have the same strength or resources for hearings with senators, lectures and further discussions.
• TEDIC’s lack of credibility with important actors. The local press, human rights lawyers and constitutional lawyers did not pick up on the first part of the campaign. It was only when the IACHR, UNESCO and other international organizations acted that they picked up on it.
• The last four weeks before meeting with the deputies, because the campaign was appearing a lot in the media. For example, it appeared 38 times on front pages of the country’s seven largest sources of print media; it was in the headlines of three newspapers daily following the deputies’ rejection; and it received mentions, and was the topic of interviews, discussions, etc., more than 47 times on the 12 largest radio stations in the country, and 17 times on the eight largest TV channels in the country. Social media channels were crucial. #Pyrawebs trended for four days in Paraguay. On the day of the vote, seven million Twitter users worldwide were talking about it (more than the population of Paraguay).
• The first public hearing held by the Human Rights Commission with the deputies. The presence of EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) was clear evidence of our international support.
• Edison Lanza, the IACHR‘s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, issued an official statement against the bill, as did Guilherme Canela from UNESCO.
• Our partners: Derechos Digitales in Chile helped raise awareness by designing pamphlets, and Amnesty International Paraguay joined the cause in the last two weeks, which increased our social networking capabilities.
• A group of young people from inland Paraguay joined the campaign. They made stickers and t-shirts, promoted the campaign on the streets and became involved in the entire process.
• The decision by the Chamber of Deputies to unanimously reject the bill.
What would you identify as the part(s) of the strategy that contributed the most to the campaign’s success?
• The message: One of the problems with campaigns surrounding technology is that it is difficult to reach an audience beyond “techies”. However, we achieved this and were able to communicate with the general public. The name of the campaign: “Pyrawebs” strategically facilitated the campaign and promoted it.
• The political climate: Paraguay is going through a very interesting period of growth, with the increasing participation of civil society.
• Partnerships: With international organizations, representatives of international agencies, and with the Human Rights Commission of the Chamber of Deputies.
• Working with the media.
What advice would you have for other groups trying to block legislation like this in their country?
With these kinds of campaigns against mass surveillance, it is difficult to generate resonance on the issue without causing fear that paralyzes people and discourages them from getting involved. Drawing on the Paraguayan notion of ‘pyrague’ and giving it a modern (even comical) touch by adding “webs” helped give new life to a difficult subject, and also simplified it and made it intelligible to “non-techies”.
Another piece of advice could be to place the same amount of importance on community media as on the national press and radio. In the end, the community is who will promote grassroots action – and this kind of action is always one of a campaign’s goals. Additionally, getting international coverage will help to demonstrate the importance of the issue.
Some of these factors, such as the political climate, are difficult to replicate in other contexts, but we think it is worth mentioning these kinds of factors as they demonstrate how a small organization can successfully orchestrate efforts in an uphill battle.
Note: This interview took place just before the bill was sent back to the Senate. It has been updated to reflect the fact that the #Pyrawebs campaign was also successful at the Senate level, where it was rejected outright on 4 June 2015.