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Faces of Open Government: Juan Manuel Casanueva

Rostros de Gobierno Abierto: Juan Manuel Casanueva

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Juan Manuel Casanueva|

In 2017, civil society and media organizations revealed that the Mexican government had spent US$80 million over 18 months on spyware to surveil lawyers, journalists, and human rights defenders. The scandal provoked public outcry and a temporary rupture of the open government process in the country. Juan Manuel Casanueva sat down with OGP to discuss a commitment in Mexico’s action plan that seeks to address the lack of regulation and supervision of government digital surveillance.

Mexico’s action plan included some interesting commitments, covering issues such as gun control, gender, and beneficial ownership. But the surveillance commitment is particularly interesting, as the role of a safe civic space and regulation of digital tools is gaining attention among the open government community. How did you come to include this commitment in the action plan?

Mexico’s fourth action plan commitments are tied to the surveillance case known as the “Spying government” of 2017. Civil society groups, supported by international journalists and an investigation by the New York Times, brought to light the fact that the Mexican Government was using spying software Pegasus against human rights defenders, journalists, and civil society groups. Accusations were presented before the General Attorney but, at that time, did not result in a judiciary process with credible results.

In light of the lack of responsiveness from the previous government to such accusations and its failure to take a stand against surveillance, in addition to the statements by the previous governments against those of us who were raising our voices and uncovering its government’s spying actions, civil society decided to withdraw from the open government process and terminate the action plan.

This scandal led to civil society taking steps to establish controls to prevent the government from abusing digital tools to spy on civilians, working to secure a safe, open and free civic space.

Civil society groups called for OGP’s to trigger its Response Policy unto the Government of Mexico, requesting OGP to intervene in Mexico’s actions to close the country’s civic space. This opened up the possibility to resume the open government process in a potential fourth action plan, co-created with the upcoming administration.

This return and reestablishment of the open government agenda were underpinned by the need to address the unregulated use of surveillance tools and to establish democratic controls to prevent the interception of private communications in Mexico.

This set the tone and the enabling conditions for civil society to work with the new government to establish the agenda and ensure that the new plan incorporated ambitious and concrete commitments.

 

There is clearly a long way to go, but what do you expect from this commitment? And how can we make sure that the action plan’s commitments stand after the end of its implementation cycle?

Our expectations of the surveillance commitment, but also of our collaboration with the new government are twofold:

First, we expect open government to be a real and integrated component of this government’s efforts to implement the action plan’s commitments, allowing for the establishment of mechanisms for openness and concrete outcomes.

Second, the surveillance commitment addresses a basic need that has been shown in Mexico, but that also applies to many other countries, where by law and in practice, public agencies can obtain – with much control or internal or external regulation – technology to surveil people without control, transparency or accountability. There are different types of tools, from Pegasus and other extremely invasive software that can take over cell phones to intercepting traditional communication means such as phone calls, text messages, and others.

We expect to be able to work across the public federal administration and to set controls for the transparent and legal contracting of this kind of technology and ensure that it is solely for the government entities that require them to fight terrorism, organized crime and others. We also expect to establish controls and safeguards to prevent abuses against individuals who are not subject to criminal investigations.

In your opinion, did this experience spark interest from the international community to support or learn from Mexico’s experience? In what ways? How can OGP support his process?

The world is completely digital, not just in Mexico but globally. In this context, our privacy and basic rights – like our freedom of expression – are affected. We must thus guarantee our digital rights in the spaces where we operate. OGP should encourage governments to set in place policies and actions to respect digital rights in an effort to secure an open and safe civic space. Similar commitments should be incorporated in countries that lack solid democratic controls for the acquisition and use of surveillance technology.

We arrive at the same crossroads: How can we achieve government openness if the civic space is imperiled as we are seeing with selective surveillance and growing State capacity?

This is the intention of Mexico, but addressing the interception of private communications should be relevant in other countries’ open government process.

Today, civic space does not only mean the right to protest or to free press and safe journalism, but also to secure civil society’s private and safe acting.

Thus, one of the basic principles of open government was unfortunately breached by the spying activities of a Mexican administration. We highly suspect that other OGP member countries are also victims of this. OGP should be the platform to ensure that civic space remains open, safe and participatory in digital contexts where OGP works.

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