Archive for October 2010

Internet Necesario and the Mexican Netroots

8 October 2010

On Tuesday, the Mexican Senate unanimously passed a resolution urging President Felipe Calderon to withdraw from negotiations over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The grounds of their opposition? Concern about the treaty’s restrictions on privacy on the internet and free access to information.

If that sounds like an uncommon concern of the Mexican Senate, you would be right. So how did we get here? Come back with me to October 2009…

A year ago, the Mexican Senate proposed a new excise tax of 4% on all telecommunications. After a minor outcry, they revised the rate down to 3%, but it was hardly the cost that rankled Mexico’s netroots– the tax would add just a few pesos to their monthly bill. Rather, the devil lay in the scheme of the tax, which put telecommunications– including internet access– in a category typically reserved for tobacco, liquor, and luxury items.

It’s hard to imagine an opportunity more ripe for web-based protest, and the Twitter users of Mexico coalesced around the hashtag #internetnecesario (“the internet is a necessity”).  In a week in late October, thousands of irate Mexicans pushed the phrase into Twitter’s trending topics– one of the first times a Spanish phrase had made the cut– and brought the proposed tax to the attention of the media and the Senate itself.

By week’s end– the last day of the legislative session– “Internet Necessario” had surpassed negotiations over the federal budget as the country’s top political story, and Mexican Senators were getting crash courses in the internet age. With many of the capital’s Twitterati sitting in the room for negotiations over the tax, the proceedings were broadcast live across the internet, and the Senators’ words were subject to instantaneous scrutiny, ridicule, or praise: an unusual circumstance for policymakers who typically operated at a distance from their constituents.

In the end, the tax was voted down unanimously, and the idea of the internet as a “luxury” was cast out of the discourse with derision. The lesson for the Senators was clear: don’t mess with the internet, because people are paying attention, and can make their voices heard in ways previously unimaginable.

Senator Francisco Javier Castellón Fonseca, Chair of the Senate’s Science and Technology Commission, was a leader in the fight against the telecommunications tax. He was also a leader in social media– a year ago, he was the only member of the Senate on Twitter; now over 40 Senators are tweeting madly. By all accounts, Senators are engaging with citizens over Twitter to an extent that has never been seen before in Mexican democracy.

The end of this story (for now) is of course that ACTA suffered a harsh blow from the Mexican Senate this week. A year since this country’s netroots first made their voices heard, they have enjoyed ever more direct contact with their government, and were able to successfully mobilize for a cause once again. The Calderon government is likely to continue negotiations over the treaty, despite the unanimous resolution against it.  Still, a treaty like this would require ratification from the Senate, so its chances of passing into law here seem far dimmer since the Mexican netroots made their voices heard.



A Tale of Two Twitters

6 October 2010

Ok, two stories from Mexico City.


In July, four Mexican journalists were kidnapped in Durango.  The kidnappers, connected to a drug cartel, sought to force the TV news media to air segments sending the message that Los Zetas, a rival drug gang, was doing business with corrupt officials.  The journalists’ respective employers– most notably Televisa, the biggest media company in Latin America– negotiated for their freedom, but walked away from the table.

losqueremosvivosFor many Mexican journalists, the situation was too familiar– caught between vicious thugs who have killed 64 journalists in the past decade, a complicit government that fails to protect the freedoms of press and information, and media companies that fail to protect their reporters. And so a group of them took to Twitter, uniting around the hashtag #losqueremosvivos (we want them alive).

Within a week, the journalists’ simple demand had spread like wildfire on Twitter, migrated to Facebook, and morphed into a full-fledged movement. The reporters planned a march in Mexico City for August 7, invited journalists from around Mexico to join in the capital or host their own marches, and introduced colleagues around the world to their grievances.  Over 2,000 journalists showed up to march in Mexico City, and 14 other groups held their own rallies around the country.

The journalists were beaten, starved, and threatened, but were ultimately freed shortly after the rally, and the kidnappers arrested.  Nonetheless, all four reporters are seeking asylum in the U.S., on the grounds that, as journalists, they are persecuted by a government that “can’t and won’t protect them.”


In February, Mexico City was shaken by news of a double murder.  Twitter user @atorreta and her boyfriend were both shot walking home from dinner, and her brother reported the whole episode from the hospital with tweet after tragic tweet.  The Mexico City Twitter community erupted in a fury of rage, angst, and calls for justice.  Online news sources published the story on their front pages.  And hours later, everyone learned that the entire story was false, made up.

It’s not clear who made it up.  What is clear is that Mexican cartels have grown ever more sophisticated in their own use of social media, executing a well-thought through media strategy, using all the tools in their toolbox. This episode is characteristic of the sort of manipulation and misinformation that bad actors can use to their advantage on a frenzied network like Twitter.


So what do we have here? A case study in how social media can be used for organizing and sharing ideas, and a cautionary tale against taking Twitter at its word. Beyond that, two arguments for the necessity of good reporters, and good journalism.

If we take seriously the right to information, we must also take seriously the right to inform. Even in this technology-dense world– perhaps even more so than before– we rely on good journalism to give us a platform for intelligent debate. Here in Mexico, where journalists are shot dead for reporting on corruption, or threatened and silenced for calling out the cartels, there is a dearth of good information about these issues, and not enough informed debate. New media and technologies will be a part of bridging that gap. And so will good reporters.



Mexico’s Mobile Monopoly

3 October 2010

I’m in Mexico right now, investigating the use of mobile phones and other new technologies by nonprofits, NGOs, and small civil society organizations in this country.  My research is only just begun, but I’ve already encountered one major barrier to small groups leveraging the expansive mobile network and innovating tools and platforms using mobile services.

Telcel is Mexico’s largest mobile phone operator, and for many in the country, the only option. Around 75% of all mobile subscriptions in the country are with Telcel– a bit like if Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile were one company in the U.S., but instead of Sprint as an alternative, you had three or four smaller companies. A formerly government-owned company, Telcel was sold into private hands just a few years ago, and while some users I’ve talked to report that coverage and service has gotten a little better, prices have gone way, way up.

As Samhir wrote on Thursday, part of what has driven sky-high adoption rates in many developing countries is vigorous competition between mobile operators, driving down prices.  In India, a 1-minute call costs about 7 cents (adjusted for PPP), and a text message costs the same. In Indonesia, voice is expensive (as much as 32 cents/minute), but sending an SMS costs only 3 cents. In Ghana, a text costs 7 cents, and in nearby Panama, where three robust mobile operators compete aggressively, it’s only 4 cents.

In Mexico, sending a text message with Telcel costs as much as 14 cents (again, adjusted for PPP), and for pre-paid subscribers (a group that includes most poorer people) the rates can be higher. Voice, meanwhile, can cost close to 50 cents per minute. Clearly, this is a serious barrier for adoption among poorer people, and a barrier for groups that may benefit from the network’s reach.

What’s more, when Carlos Slim and his América Móvil corporation took over Telcel from the government, they did so on the agreement that they would expand the network to cover all the many rural villages around Mexico, including those here in mountainous Oaxaca.  Progress has been halting at best.  Despite this, it’s not uncommon to meet people who have no mobile coverage where they live, and yet own a mobile phone.  They have one, they say, for when they travel into the city, or for the phone’s entertainment features. In fact, over 70% of Mexicans own a mobile phone. But the use of the platform has been limited.

While mobile has been tricky here in Mexico, internet growth has been very strong, with 19% year-on-year growth in the number of users, helping make Latin America the fastest growing region in the world for internet usage. Social networking, communication, and online entertainment are all big here, and e-commerce is beginning to make an impact.  As long as Telcel’s monopoly on mobile persists, we’ll likely continue to see internet as a stronger force in society.