Friday, April 25, 2014

oscar hammerstein -- call your office

The streets are alive with the sound of malice.

At least, they were in Mexico City this past week.  A noticeably young crowd (because that is who shows up at these events) gathered to protest proposed legislation that would have openly authorized the government to censor internet and telephone conversations.  Or, at least that was the rap.

You would think that I would be out there with my protest sign.  After all, there were shouts of "freedom" and "liberty" in the air -- as if the Tea Party had come to town.  I even pulled out my "I am enemy of the state" button from the 1970s.  But I stayed home.

Let's step back a moment, though, to try to put all of this into context.

Last year, the Mexican government amended the oft-patched Constitution of 1917 to allow reforms to the country's telecommunications almost-monopolies -- telephone, internet, television.  Because of its peculiar setup, nothing changes in Mexico with a constitutional amendment until enacting legislation is passed.  That is why a lot of constitutional provisions have sat as orphans for the past 100 years.

The Senate is finally getting around to putting together legislation to actually do something about the three monopolies.  The constitutional amendment was passed with support from each of the three parties: the leftist PRD, the center-left PRI, and the center-right PAN. 

That unity is now gone.  All three parties have submitted their own ideas on how the new telecommunications field should be operated.  Or how the pork should be sliced.

Because PRI has the largest bloc (but not a majority) of the votes in the Senate, its proposal has garnered the most interest.  And it is that proposal that brought the protesters into the streets to clash with the police.

I have looked online in vain for the actual text of the proposal.  I cannot find it.  Without reading the whole thing, I am not certain how anyone can have an informed opinion on whether the proposal is a good solution to Mexico's current telecommunications mess.

The telephone system is a perfect example of how bad service in Mexico is.  Of course, as bad as it is, telephone service has moved from the stone age to the modern age in a mere few years.  But the current setup is stunting Mexico's growth.

Carlos Slim controls 80% of fixed-line telephone service and 70% of cellular usage.  From that redoubt, he also controls most of the country's access to internet.  A recent study in The Economist noted "[a]lthough his businesses are exceptionally profitable by global standards, the services are slow and expensive, and their uptake low, even by Latin American standards."

Television control is a similar mess -- one without the fingerprints of Carlos Slim.  Probably, to no one's surprise, the television monopoly, that coincidentally is a PRI supporter, is receiving better breakup terms than are the telephone companies.

And that is why I want to see the full text of the proposal before I stick in my oar.  The bill is supposed to address how the current set-up will be broken up.

But that aspect of the bill has garnered little attention. 
The biggest concerns center around three proposals: a new power for the government to restrict internet access at scenes of public disorder; permission for the police to use web-browsing and location data in their investigations; and the potential for internet service providers to censor content.  It is the first, using a phrase, taken out of its context, that has inflamed the hormones of the street protesters.

draft bill allegedly contains a provision permitting authorities to "temporarily block, inhibit, or annul telecommunications signals at events and places deemed critical for the public safety."

The government currently has a similar power that it uses to block telecommunications in prisons or near sensitive government operations.  But there is no doubt that the proposed language would greatly extend that authority.  If that is what the bill actually states.

The PRI leader in the Senate defended the language -- that it was never intended to do what the protesters claim.  Of course, that comes from the same party that was responsible for the 1968 student massacre in Mexico City -- a human rights violation that has not been fully explained to this day.

If that language is as broad as it seems, the protesters were well within their rights to challenge a law that would have given such broad powers to the government.  And it is easy to see why the government wanted it there.

Governments throughout the world have recently fallen through the power of the internet.  And it is why fascist dictatorships like Cuba and Red China do everything they can to control electronic social networks.

It turns out the protesters did well.  On 22 April, the Senate leader announced that the offending language would be removed from the bill.

This is where cynical Steve shows up.  Since most of the legislation had nothing to do with the snooping language, it is easy to speculate that Carlos Slim and the PRI television minions may have had something to do with stoking the protests.  Anything to slow down the devolution of their empires.

And Even-More-Cynical Steve has another take.  PRI was simply stupid to put the language in the legislation.  If push comes to shove (as it did in Egypt, Libya, and Ukraine), the government will have no qualms in
temporarily blocking, inhibiting, or annulling telecommunications signals at events and places deemed critical for the public safety, no matter what a statute says -- that is, whenever the government feels threatened.  Just as it felt threatened in 1968 under President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz Bolaños and his top cop Luis Echeverría Álvarez when a group of students were enough to panic the government into murdering a bunch of kids.

I have given high marks to President
Enrique Peña Nieto for some of the brave reforms he has proposed and enacted.  He was doing a very good job of convincing us all that a new PRI was in power.  That the liberal ideals of Benito Juárez would finally be enacted.

But it appears that Ricky and The Boys are not quite the reformists we took them to be.  And that is unfortunate.  Especially, on a topic that should be technical rather than political.

It may take years for the president to convince us he is who he claimed to be.

And those of you who were counting the days until you could burn your bank trust documents?  I would stop counting.  The steam has run out of that reform engine. 

You will be better off looking into Mexican citizenship.  I am.

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