Two different platforms helped bridge protest against a tax on the internet from Twitter to Mexico's Congress.
Posted by Renata Avila on Feb 13, 2010
The project below was interviewed during the first phase of our research, in early 2010. We have since determined that it fits more within the categories of general citizen engagement and/or activism in areas outside of transparency and accountability, rather than within the specific criteria we have defined for the purposes of our research.
At noon on October 19, 2009 Alejandro Pisanty, director of the Internet Society of Mexico, posted a message on Twitter linking to an article he wrote expressing concerns about the impact of a new three percent tax on internet access which had just been approved by Mexico's Chamber of Deputies. Pisanty's message quickly spread around Mexico's digerati like wildfire. The following day "#InternetNecesario" ("Internet [is a] necessity") was included on Twitter’s Trends Topic List; that is, it was one of the most discussed topics on Twitter worldwide.
In a matter of hours, the conversation on Twitter transformed into a decentralized advocacy campaign involving thousands of Twitter users in different locations across Mexico and the diaspora who used Flickr, podcasts, blog posts, YouTube, photo blogs, and traditional offline demonstrations to protest against the proposed tax. The Mexican Chamber of Deputies soon realized the size and strength of the opposition to the tax and reversed their decision.
While the protest campaign was diverse and decentralized, two main platforms emerged to aggregate relevant information and share it across platforms. The first site, InternetNecesario.org, asked its users to "tell the politicians why the Internet is a necessity." Each day the InternetNecesario.org team compiled a thorough list of Twitter messages using the "#internetnecesario" tag and sent them via email to all 628 members of Mexico's congress.
The second major site, InternetNecesario.info was concerned that Mexico's mainstream media were reporting more about the use of Twitter in the protests than the content of the actual Twitter messages and the reason for the protest in the first place. In addition to aggregating the latest Twitter posting with the hashtag "#InternetNecesario", the website also used blog posts to provide its readers with more context about the history of the tax debate, how senators voted along party lines, how Mexico's broadband access and rates compare to other countries, and how Mexican senators reacted to the bombardment of emails, Twitter messages, and personal meetings about the tax. The website also developed a section called "Meta | TXT" to pull out key concepts and trends from the tens of thousands of messages posted to Twitter using the "#internetnecesario" tag. They classified the info in four main areas: Why internet is a necessity for Technology and Education / Legal and Political aspects / Economy and Development and what the citizens were saying on twitter. Their purpose was to go beyond the message and start an informed, critical analysis of the situation, but also to leave a footprint, a record, with the voices of every citizen who took part of it.
Oscar Salazar: It was the ignorance of some of the politicians in the country. When mainstream media asked questions about their opinions of the Twitter movement, one of them said: "I am not familiar with Twitter because I have a job and I do not have time for it". At that time we decided that we realized that Twitter is not an effective tool to reach people like them, that we needed to plan a different strategy, to use different tools, tools that the politicians in general are familiar with. That is why we decided to use email to send the Twitter diggest of the day, to attract the attention of of a group of people that were not familiar (at least most of them) with Twitter: the Mexican Congress and the Mexican Senate.
Homero Fernandez: Misinformation. Opportunism from some politicians who used the platform for their own proselytising. That the movement was not analyzing and considering all the relevant aspects; it was limited to the tax, and did not express concerns for the lack of internet access for most of Mexico's population.
Oscar Salazar: You have to test different tools and use those tools that might reach the people you want to engage in your project.
Homero Fernandez: We created the platform with links to objective, updated information, so people could easily understand the problem with all its aspects and angles. Instead of just reading a 140 characters message, they could find at a single place all the information they needed in order to arrive to their own conclusions.
Oscar Salazar: Our platform had two purposes: the first one was visibility, we needed to gather and take out all the messages from Twitter and put them on a website so that anyone could see the real-time discussion of #internetnecesario, even if they were not Twitter users. The other objective was to inform the members of the Congress and the Senate that there was major opposition to the tax from a large percentage of the population.
Alberto Bustamante and Homero Fernandez: Disinformation. After a while we realized that, even when it was readily apparent that many people were actively participating with the #internetnecesario hashtag, at a certain level they did not know what it was they were discussing or the purpose of the discussion. The objective was lost in the cloud of data. So we decided to act and help organize the data into a platform with our skills and time.
Oscar Salazar: The original problem was the disconnect between the Congress and the people they represent. The Congress did not ask the civil society for their opinions about the new Internet tax. But the practical problem our platform intended to solve was to get the #internetnecesario message out of Twitter and to turn it into a political petition for the members of the Congress and the members of the Senate.
Homero Fernandez: We did not like the way journalists were covering the news: all the emphasis was around Twitter as a tool, as a social phenomenon, and they were not discussing why people were protesting. Journalists were not providing objective information to the people and the information was confusing, disperse and subjective.
Oscar Salazar: As an ICT expert working on mobile techologies and activism, I worked on July 2009 on a project called Cuidemos el Voto. At that time, the information was generated from text messages (SMS), emails, twitter, and reports on a website. The main objective of Cuidemos el Voto was to report incidents and irregularities in the electoral process.
Alberto Bustamante and Homero Fernandez: Our group of friends started the conversation via Chat and Twitter and we realized how important the decision of the internet tax was. Most Mexicans do not have access to the Internet, and a new tax would increase the digital divide and reduce the opportunities to access to knowledge, culture and development. So we decide to move from our talk to action and we rapidly created www.internecesario.info to help anyone inform him or herself. It was a group decision.
Oscar Salazar: From my perspective, while I was not providing information that should be provided by the government, I think that the government should facilitate discussion channels for their citizens. Twitter is one of them, but there are not so many twitter users in Mexico. So we had to build this platform to serve as a channel to bridge the opinions of Internet users with their representatives.
Oscar Salazar: My opinion is that before the #internetnecesario campaign, the government did not know the potential of new media tools to communicate with their citizens. Since Twitter and similar tools are relatively new technologies in Mexico, the government is still trying to figure out how they will use it to improve their communications.
Oscar Salazar: At the end of each day, all the messages sent via Twitter during the day were wrapped together and sent via email to every single member of the Congress and the Senate to explain why the Internet is a necessity. Soon after we began sending the emails, members of the Senate invited members of the Mexican Twitter community to a formal, face-to-face meeting at the Mexican Congress, where active members of the campaign used strong arguments to convince the senators to change their minds and abstain from taxing the Internet.
Homero Fernandez: The offline change was the result: at the end the tax was not approved and many people that had not engaged ever before in a political dialogue now are actively discussing other relevant topics online. Now even influential journalists look at the conversations on twitter to write their pieces and op-eds.
Oscar Salazar: The project www.internetnecesario.org and the movement #internetnecesario as a whole was successful because we achieve our goal: the politicians finally listened to the people that would have been affected by the Tax, the internet users.
Alberto Bustamante and Homero Fernandez: As we explained before, now the people is aware and know that they can be a part of the discussions. And the people is better informed. However we are not utopists. We are clear that the internet will not fix our problems. Most of the people is still offline, the service is expensive and we need to fix such problems before.
Oscar Salazar: It was full-time work for our team. Although we were in different locations (I was in NYC at that time but I was virtually in Mexico), all the team worked together to achieve our goal. We worked throughout most of the day during the campaign and organized the information to send the emails to Congress.
Alberto Bustamante and Homero Fernandez: It took us from 7 am to 7 pm to create the Website and compile all the relevant information. We worked together at someone else's house and after that we just updated the webpage with relevant information.
Oscar Salazar: The whole week the team was working all the time, organizing the communications, attending on-line and off-line meetings. Just 20 hours after we launched the project, we had exchanged up to 100 emails among us. Then we discovered Google wave.
Alberto Bustamante and Homero Fernandez: As we explained, we worked as a team and we spent 12 hours of our time.
Oscar Salazar: Project management and team management were the most time-consuming tasks.
Alberto Bustamante and Homero Fernandez: Curating the content. We had to decide which information was the most relevant, objective and accurate.
Oscar Salazar: The data gathered by the project helped our politicians better understand the role of the Internet in our society at this time. In our particular case, the Internet community was already engaged. It was easy to capture their attention because of the tax we were opposing. It was an absurdity. The proposal was to increase the prices of a service everyone needs, instead of lowering the barrier to access.
Oscar Salazar: We did not verify the identities of participants on our website.
Oscar Salazar: For those who were not Twitter users, we provide them the tools to be a part of the conversation.
Alberto Bustamante and Homero Fernandez: Anyone can send information via email, and if it is relevant and objective, will upload it to the website.
Oscar Salazar: The awareness among the Internet users was already there, we just provided a channel to let the politicians know what the people were saying.
Alberto Bustamante and Homero Fernandez: Via our networks, our twitters accounts, blogs, chat.
Oscar Salazar: The incentive was the opportunity to tell the authorities - to explain our representatives - what the Internet is and how we use it. It is not, as many of them think, just "entertainment" but much more. New generations understand that, so they wanted to speak out and tell the politicians that the Internet is a tool for development, for education, for culture. They do their homeworks, socialize and learn more about the world on the Internet. But the interesting thing is that many people from different ages and backgrounds were involved in the action, not only teenagers. Young adults, adults and elders participate as well. All the people worked towards a common goal: to not let the congress enact the law.
Oscar Salazar: The team had all the skills required to run the project. They had the technology, the skills to program and the skills to organize a social strategy as well, since they organized a similar initiative a few months before the #internetnecesario.
Homero Fernandez: We had the skills and tools to complete the work: Three of us, Rodrigo, Homero and me are studying architecture, Daniela Hernandez is studying Law and Regina Pozo is studying art. So we decided to meet and work together as a team, we had access to information, equipment and tools to easily create the website.
Oscar Salazar: The whole project was "donation - based". People donated time, expertise, hosting, and design skills. People shared the platforms on their different social networks and also various journalists discussed the topic in the print press and on radio.
Homero Fernandez: It was volunteer-driven and the platform is already there. If the debate continues, the platform will continue as well.
Oscar Salazar: Personally I am involved with Ushahidi and people from the United Nations. In Mexico, for Cuidemos el Voto, we worked with a network of NGOs that helped us implement the project. It was a platform used before #internetnecesario.
Alberto Bustamante and Homero Fernandez: Just our team.
Oscar Salazar: We did develop our own tools. We used a Twitter API to aggregate the Tweets that used the hashtag #internetnecesario and we used open source technologies. Anyone can get our own code and adapt it for their own projects. Everything was built using open source tools and we decided to share it with everybody. Anyone can download it at http://github.com/ and use it for whatever they want.
Alberto Bustamante: We have experience in web design so we created our own tool, adapted to include all the information that we considered it was necessary to share with the people.
Oscar Salazar: Yes. The Senate invited any participant willing to express their opinions on the topic to a hearing before the Congress to discuss the tax and expose the most relevant arguments.
Alberto Bustamante and Homero Fernandez: Our participation was online but we learned from someone else that the participants who visited the Congress used our Website as a reference to learn more about the subject.
Oscar Salazar: No, our work is technical, we are just providing tools and we do not face any legal obstacle.
Alberto Bustamante and Homero Fernandez: No, but there are several attempts to regulate the Internet. Just a couple of weeks ago, the ACTA treaty was discussed in Guadalajara, and also a politician said that using Twitter was harmful, because organized crime was taking advantage of it. From our view, it is just that they are not ready to deal with active citizens who are expressing their opinions.
Oscar Salazar: Not that I am aware of. But there are many attempts to replicate Cuidemos el Voto, more organizations are interested in the project and want to implement it for local and national elections. #internetnecesario addressed a Mexican problem but we will be happy to provide our tool to anyone that would like to use it.
Oscar Salazar: "Cuidemos el Voto" was one of the latest implementations of Ushahidi, and the first to be implemented in Latin America. The original idea of Andres Lajous and I was to enable citizens to report any voting irregularities or other problems using emails or SMS's during the election of new members to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress. We partnered with the MIT's Center for Future Civic Media and different organizations in Mexico to launch the initiative. The project will re-launch for the local elections in 2010, in June, to promote transparency during election.
Oscar Salazar: For Cuidemos el Voto, basically I would improve the infrastructure. For example, to offer institutional accounts to different organizations, or to create an electoral observation platform so every single NGO can connectand use it to report different incidents during any electoral process.
Oscar Salazar:I would like to create a Think Tank for Projects using mobile technologies in Latin America.
Oscar Salazar: I will open Cuidemos el Voto and then try to implement different platforms in Mexico.