- A court acquitted biologist Diego Gómez of violating copyright by sharing an academic paper online after three years of criminal proceedings; he faced up to 8 years in prison. Prosecutors appealed (see “Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities”).
- Disinformation about negotiations between the guerrilla group FARC and the national government proliferated in the lead-up to a national referendum on a peace deal (see “Content Manipulation”).
- Civil society groups said a police code in force since in January 2017 may undermine privacy for internet users (see “Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity”).
Colombian users access and share online content relatively freely, but internet freedom remained constrained by persisting concerns over excessive and illegal surveillance, harsh penalties for minor copyright violations, and a climate of threats and self-censorship.
In November 2016, the Colombian legislature ratified a landmark accord between the government and left-wing FARC guerrillas, after six years of talks. The deal was initially rejected in a national referendum but accepted in a second vote after some renegotiation. However, an alarming wave of lethal attacks targeted human rights defenders and activists over the past year, posing challenges for freedom of expression. Self-censorship both online and offline has become a prophylactic measure against violence, particularly in rural areas where impunity is even more pervasive than in cities.
Poor infrastructure, low digital literacy, and high costs still hamper widespread access to the internet in Colombia. Although there are occasional cases of content removal, takedowns are isolated rather than systematic. During the coverage period, the legality of platforms such as Uber also stirred debate around possible policy measures to address the app’s non-compliance with transportation regulations, including proposals to block it. Separately, a website run by a community organization that publishes consumer complaints about an official agency responsible for student loans was inaccessible for over a year because the agency accused it of trademark violations.
While prosecutions for dissemination of content online are still rare, harsh penalties for minor copyright violations and criminal penalties for defamation continue to threaten users’ rights. This was the case of Diego Gómez, a biology student who faced criminal penalties for sharing someone else’s thesis on the digital content sharing platform Scribd, even though he did not claim authorship or profit from it. In May 2017, a judge determined that Gómez was not guilty of copyright violations, but the prosecution appealed the decision.
Poor oversight of government surveillance and revelations about illegal practices have raised concerns. Journalists have been subject to online and offline surveillance because of their work exposing corruption and irregularities within institutions such as the National Police.
Although internet penetration has steadily increased, Colombia still faces obstacles to access primarily stemming from socioeconomic factors. The lack of basic utilities and affordable internet access constitutes an informal barrier to information and communications technologies (ICTs).
Availability and Ease of Access
With nearly half of the population still without internet, significant obstacles to access remain. Lack of infrastructure in rural areas, low levels of digital literacy, and high prices all stand in the way of widespread access. Internet access is facilitated primarily by DSL and cable connections.1
Geographical disparities in internet access are significant in Colombia.2 In rural areas, many Colombian users access the internet outside of their homes: almost 24.5 percent accessed the internet through cybercafes and 43 percent through educational centers, while free public access points served just 8 percent of internet users.3
Although many indigenous languages are spoken in Colombia, there do not appear to be significant efforts to offer online content in these languages. Even the official websites of the territories of Amazonas, Vichada, and Guajira—each of which lays claim to a large indigenous population—are in Spanish, with options to view them in English, French, or Italian, but not local indigenous languages.4
High internet prices and low levels of digital literacy continued to present substantial obstacles to internet access. A 2016 digital consumers survey revealed that 46 percent of people without internet in their homes cited high prices as the reason for not acquiring service, while 34 percent stated that they did not think the internet was necessary.5 However, the latest Affordability Drivers Index (ADI) report, which measures policy and regulatory factors that can enable more affordable broadband, ranked Colombia in first place, citing government policies and partnerships with the ICT sector to improve affordability and access in the country.6
The ICT ministry has noted that internet access has increased by 16 percent since 2010 thanks to official programs such as Vive Digital, which has delivered more than two million tablets and laptops to public schools around Colombia.7 Administered by the ICT ministry, Vive Digital aims to expand infrastructure, services, internet applications, and the number of Colombian internet users.8 Colombia Aprende, the Education Ministry’s platform for the promotion of literacy launched in 2004, also aims to expand the use of digital applications and devices, training some 16,000 digital literacy teachers across the nation.9 However, critics say the training is inadequate.10
At the end of 2016, the ICT ministry launched two initiatives to promote internet use: “Free Wi-Fi for the People” (Wifi gratis para la gente) and “Social Mobile Internet for the People” (Internet móvil social para la gente). The first initiative promotes the establishment of free internet access points in small cities and towns around the country.11 The latter would offer low cost smartphones and mobile internet plans to new users with fewer resources.12
Restrictions on Connectivity
The government does not place limits on bandwidth, nor does it impose control over infrastructure, except in emergency situations when internet service providers (ISPs) are required to make their infrastructure available for official response.13 The government has not centralized telecommunications infrastructure, and does not deliberately shut down internet or mobile connections.
Colombia only has one internet exchange point (IXP), called “NAP Colombia,” through which ISPs exchange traffic to improve efficiency and speed. Located in Bogotá, the IXP is managed by the Colombian Chamber for Informatics and Telecommunications.14
Colombia is home to 56 ISPs, and while approximately 85 percent of the market is concentrated in the hands of four companies, there are nonetheless multiple options for consumers and healthy competition.15 Market entry is straightforward, and it is possible for anyone to establish an ISP by following the general requirements of the ICT Law, which establishes free competition and prioritizes efficient use of infrastructure and access to ICTs.16
Registration requirements are neither excessive nor onerous. Business owners must provide personal and tax identification as well as a description of services, but no fee is required. This information is published in an open registry, and the ICT ministry has 10 days to verify the data before the business may begin operating. Registration can be denied when information is incomplete or false, or when an ISP does not have the proper commercial status to offer the necessary services.17 Service providers are obligated to pay a contribution of 0.01 percent of their annual income to an ICT Ministry Fund (Fontic) devoted to the development of nationwide ICT projects.18 ISPs must also apply for licenses to utilize the radioelectric spectrum, although there have been no complaints of difficulties or bias with this process.
The mobile landscape is more concentrated than the ISP market. Although there are nine providers, more than 90 percent of the market is in the hands of three companies: Claro, Movistar and Tigo.19 In 2013, the Superintendency of Industry and Commerce sanctioned Claro for abusing its dominant position and the company was sentenced to pay a fine estimated at COP 87,000 million (US$ 26 million).20 A 2013 spectrum auction resulted in two new players entering the market, but the ministry renewed the spectrum licenses of Claro and Movistar for a new 10-year term without major alterations the same year, suggesting that little is likely to change in terms of market dominance in the next decade.21 Like ISPs, mobile service providers must also contribute 0.01 percent of their annual income to Fontic.
Colombia’s ICT sector is subject to numerous regulatory bodies with varying but limited degrees of independence from the government. The three main regulatory bodies are the ICT ministry, the Communication Regulation Commission (CRC), and the National Spectrum Agency (NSA). The competition authority, the Superintendency of Industry and Commerce, also has some control duties as part of its consumer protection obligations.
The president appoints the ICT minister, who oversees the telecommunications sector through the ICT ministry. The ICT minister also chairs the CRC, which is responsible for ensuring efficient service and promoting competition in the telecommunications sector. It is made up of the minister and three commissioners who are also appointed by the president. The ICT minister designates the head of the NSA, which is the agency in charge of planning, management and supervision of the use of the radioelectric spectrum. While some have suggested that such an executive-driven design prevents objective oversight of the sector and affords the president undue influence over its operations, to date there are no clear examples of executive bias in rulings.22
A 2014 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recommended that the CRC develop more independence from Colombia’s central government, as the board cannot deliberate without the presence of the ICT minister, and the ministry of finance fixes the agency’s budget. The OECD also advised the ICT ministry to refrain from regulating the sector, and focus solely on promoting the development and use of ICTs.23 The CRC may now meet without a ministry representative, in line with the OECD recommendation.24
Since 2010, a government-appointed concessionaire has been responsible for allocating the .co domain. For the domains org.co, edu.co, mil.co, and gov.co, applicants must comply with specific requirements; for edu.co, for example, the applicant must be an educational institution.25
- 1. Ministry of ICT, ICT Quarterly Bulletin, Q1 2016, accessed September 7, 2016, http://bit.ly/2oDGutU
- 2. Ministry of ICT, ICT Quarterly Bulletin, Q4 2016, accessed May 13 2017, pg. 18, http://bit.ly/2oDGutU
- 3. DANE, Basic Indicators in ICT in Colombia 2016, April 7, 2017, http://bit.ly/2oMWoG3
- 4. Official Website of the Department of Amazonas, accessed September 1, 2017, http://bit.ly/1JtV75d; Official Website of the Department of Vichada, accessed September 1, 2017, http://bit.ly/1KzLbeu; Official Website of the Department of La Guajira, accessed September 1, 2017, http://bit.ly/O9WQZ8
- 5. DANE, Basic Indicators in ICT in Colombia 2016, April 7, 2017, http://bit.ly/2oMWoG3
- 6. Alliance for Affordable Internet, “The 2015-16 Affordability Report,” http://a4ai.org/affordability-report/report/2015/#colombia
- 7. MinTIC Colombia, “El Gobierno Cumple lo que Promete El plan Vive Digital es una Realidad,” [The government fulfills what it promises – the plan Vive Digital is a reality], accessed September 7, 2016.
- 8. ICT Ministry, “Vive Digital,” accessed September 1, 2017, http://bit.ly/1lbnQBQ
- 9. Education Ministry, “Crea-TIC,” accessed September 1, 2017, http://bit.ly/2e3XWVu
- 10. “Reto para profesores públicos: aprender a usar las Tabletas para educar,” Publimetro, February 20, 2015, http://bit.ly/1oONtAE
- 11. Ministry of ICT, “Wifi gratis para la gente,” accessed May 13 2017, http://bit.ly/2qbwPhK
- 12. Ministry of ICT, “Internet móvil para los colombianos más necesitados”, September 1, 2016, http://bit.ly/2bGImhW
- 13. Law 1341, Art. 8, July 30, 2009, http://bit.ly/1WQQuL7
- 14. NAP Colombia, “FAQ,” http://bit.ly/24ul175
- 15. Telmex Colombia S.A., UNE EPM Telecomunicaciones S.A., Colombia Telecomunicaciones S.A., and Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Bogotá, Colombia S.A. are the four dominant providers. Ministry of ICT, ICT Quarterly Bulletin, Q4 2016, http://bit.ly/2v52V1Z
- 16. Law 1341 of 2009, http://bit.ly/1WQQuL7
- 17. Decree 4948, December 18, 2009, http://bit.ly/1gVegGu
- 18. Law 1341 of 2009, http://bit.ly/1WQQuL7
- 19. Ministry of ICT, ICT Quarterly Bulletin, Q4 2016, http://colombiatic.mintic.gov.co/602/w3-article-51235.html
- 20. Administrative decisions 53403 and 66934, 2013, http://bit.ly/1S8qTOy
- 21. Resolution 597, 2014, ICT Ministry
- 22. Carlos Cortés, “Mobile Internet in Colombia - Challenges and Opportunities for Civil Society: The 2013 Spectrum Auction,” Open Society Foundation, December 13, 2015.
- 23. OECD, Review of Telecommunications Policy and Regulation in Colombia, April 2014, http://bit.ly/1MOiNZP
- 24. Law 1753, Art. 207, http://bit.ly/1sbO3tQ.
- 25. Dominio, “Historia del Dominio Co,” [History of the Domain .Co], Cointernet, https://www.cointernet.com.co/historia-del-dominio/
Colombian internet users are able to view and disseminate content relatively freely and social media platforms promoted several political and social protests during this coverage period. On the other hand, disinformation campaigns made use of social media to try and influence public opinion about the peace process between guerrilla group FARC and the national government in the lead-up to the referendum.
Blocking and Filtering
Blocking or filtering of political, religious, or social content is not common in Colombia.1 YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and international blog-hosting services are freely available.
In March 2017, Colombia’s gambling regulator submitted a list of over 300 gambling sites to be blocked by ISPs, following the approval of online gambling legislation in October 2016, which requires gambling sites to apply for a license. The regulator found that the sites were operating without authorization.2
Police and other institutions may limit content on a broad range of topics, from sexual abuse to “inappropriate content” or “other issues,” in order to protect minors.3 Child pornography which is illegal under international law is subject to blocking.4 Decree 1524 (2002) requires ISPs to undertake technical measures to prevent the online availability of child pornography.5 The possibility for civil or judicial oversight is limited because information about which websites are blocked is classified, possibly out of fear that individuals would use circumvention tools to access child pornography if a list of banned sites were made public.6
Apps that rely on the internet to provide commercial services, such as Uber, have been the center of much debate, and the government has been trying to regulate the service with little success. While the transportation ministry has argued in favor of blocking the app,7 the ICT ministry has invoked the net neutrality principle which does not allow network operators to discriminate against specific content or services. ICT officials said that there are no legal grounds for blocking the app, which is not illegal.8
The Colombian government does not regularly order the removal of content, although periodic court cases have resulted in judicial orders requiring the removal of specific information deemed to violate fundamental rights. News outlets separately report threats intended to force them to remove content (see “Intimidation and Violence”).
One site that publishes consumer complaints against a government entity has been repeatedly accused of infringing on that entity’s trademark, resulting in the site’s removal. The website icetextearruina.com was first taken down in March 2016 by hosting provider GoDaddy on the basis of a complaint from ICETEX, an official entity in charge of student loans. The website is owned by the Association of Users of Student Loans (ACUPE), a legally recognized organization that denounces allegations of abuse involving loans. Civil society organizations said ICETEX was abusing GoDaddy’s complaints system to censor the allegations.9 The site remained inaccessible in early 2017.10
Other takedowns have been reported under the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which shields intermediaries from liability if they remove infringing content upon receiving a notice. In March 2016, several Colombian soccer fans complained that Twitter, which is based in the U.S., was removing their posts, including videos recorded in soccer stadiums. Canal RCN, a Colombian TV channel that owns the broadcasting rights for many Colombian soccer matches, had reported the fans to Twitter for violating the DMCA. Though users may present a counter-notification and assert their rights to content they have created themselves under the law, some Colombians stopped sharing content.11
A ruling by the Superintendency of Industry and Commerce in September 2016 raised concerns for potentially encouraging prior censorship, when it forbade the broadcasting of a clip in which Educar Consumidores, a Colombian consumers’ association, raised awareness about the negative health impact of sugary drinks.12 Moreover, the authority asked Educar Consumidores to submit content to be disseminated via any media for review, in order to check inaccurate statements or poorly backed arguments and scientific facts.13 After civil society organizations challenged the authority’s decision for violating the right to freedom of expression and access to information, the Supreme Court of Justice overruled SIC’s decision.14
Publishing defamatory content created by others carries possible criminal penalties under the penal code (see “Legal Environment”). But court cases pertaining to content disputes have exempted search engines from liability for posting links to content in their search results.15 In May 2015, a court ruling strengthened the precedent that search engines should not be held liable for linking to content, even if the content has been found to violate the law.16 Although observers praised the fact that it exempted intermediaries from liability,17 some worried that the ruling might place an excessive burden on other digital content producers or publishers, because it required an online newspaper involved in the case to take steps to make the disputed information in question harder to find.18
Media, Diversity and Content Manipulation
Colombia has several digital media outlets and online spaces for political debate, and are able to view and disseminate a diversity of content. But many platforms were dominated by battles between rival campaigns in the lead-up to the referendum on the peace accord in October 2016, when disinformation and rumors surged, especially on social media. One fake story about the negotiations sparked fears that pensioners would need to pay over 7 percent of their pensions to support the demobilized guerrillas.19 The referendum rejected the accord, but it was successfully renegotiated in November.
Many professional media enterprises thrive in Colombia’s largest cities and, in general, authorities do not interfere with their operations. However, there is a lack of media diversity in many regions. According to the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), 11 out of 12 departments studied had no media presence to produce and disseminate local information.20 Out of almost 300 media outlets operating in those regions, only 23 were digital, due to the low internet penetration rate outside large cities.21
Self-censorship is a notable problem for journalists and likely affects online publications.22 At least one removed content on receipt of a death threat in the past year (see “Intimidation and Violence”). According to a national survey of journalists conducted in 2016 by Proyecto Antonio Nariño (PAN), an alliance of organizations focused on freedom of expression and access to information, 25 percent of respondents stated that they avoided publishing information due to fear of aggression; 21 percent feared losing their jobs or having their media outlets closed; and 21 percent knew about media that avoided publishing information due to fear of losing advertising revenue. Between 40 and 66 percent believed that media outlets in their region modify their editorial positions to protect advertising revenue, depending on the region; 64 percent considered that the way official advertising is awarded is opaque; and 75 percent agreed that it is necessary to change the way in which official advertising contracts are allocated.23
Colombian social movements increasingly use online platforms for advocacy. Campaigns such as #CompartirNoEsDelito (“Sharing is not a crime”) have sought to promote open access to information and protest against Colombia’s intellectual property law, which carries harsh penalties and has been used to punish academics who shared research online (see “Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities”). Since 2011, the government has made four attempts to strengthen the legal framework for intellectual property in order to meet obligations under a trade agreement with the United States, but critics said the measures could make the situation worse.24 Advocacy efforts by civil society, copyright experts and the academic community, and pressure from social media, may have motivated lawmakers to put these initiatives on hold.25
Social media channels promoted several political and social protests during this coverage period. In October 2016, after the plebiscite on the peace accord with the ex-guerrilla group FARC, many social media groups like “Paz a la calle” (Peace to the street) used Facebook live and other tools to convene and broadcast peaceful protests in support of the accord.26
- 1. Communication from ICT Ministry in response to Request of Information Nº 661596, February 24, 2015.
- 2. “Este viernes comienza el bloqueo de 325 páginas de azar ilegales,” El Tiempo, June 30, 2017, http://bit.ly/2truT7u; “Coljuegos prepara bloqueo a Poker Stars en el país,” El Tiempo, March 27, 2017, http://bit.ly/2nmW8um
- 3. “Te Protejo” website, http://bit.ly/1n56U6s
- 4. Communication from ICT Ministry in response to Request of Information Nº 661596, February 24, 2015.
- 5. Law 679 of 2001, http://bit.ly/1RanTw8 ; Decree 1524, July 24, 2002, http://bit.ly/1NRSVKZ
- 6. Communication 5245, ICT Ministry to Foundation for Press Freedom; See also: Law 679, Decree 1524, July 24, 2002, http://bit.ly/1NRSVKZ
- 7. “Las consecuencias que podría traer desactivar a Uber en el país,” El Tiempo, September 7, 2016, http://bit.ly/2zb2SE3
- 8. MinTIC, “El Ministerio de las Tecnologías de la Información y las Comunicaciones responde a la solicitud de medidas cautelares en contra de plataforma digital” [Ministry of ICT reacts to precautionary measures against digital plattform] March 23, 2017, http://bit.ly/2p9Vggp
- 9. “Bloqueo de página web por solicitud del ICETEX es una forma de censura” [Website blocking as per ICETEX demand is a form of censorship], Joint statement by Fundación Karisma and Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, March 23, 2016, http://bit.ly/22Z1YQR
- 10. Isaza, L. “Icetex celebra un año de censura” [Icetex celebrates one year of censorship] Cero Sesenta, March 30, 2017, https://cerosetenta.uniandes.edu.co/icetex-celebra-un-ano-de-censura/
- 11. Mora, L. Botero, C. Espitia, N. “Entre notificaciones, contranotificaciones y el equipo de mis amores” [Between notifications, counternotifications and the team I love], Fundación Karisma, April 28, 2016, http://bit.ly/2pDBeHS
- 12. “Este es el polémico comercial de bebidas azucaradas que sacaron del aire,” [This is the polemic sugary drinks ad that was taken out of air] El Espectador, September 8, 2016. http://bit.ly/2rnf80G
- 13. Superintendency of Industry and Commerce (SIC), “Superindustria ordena retirar comercial de TV sobre supuestos efectos nocivos del consumo de bebidas azucaradas” [SIC orders withdrawal of TV ad about alleged nocive effects of sugary drinks consumption]. September 7, 2016, http://bit.ly/2rnt2jm
- 14. Supreme Court of Justice of Colombia. Ref. 11001-22-10-000-2016-00766-01 April 5, 2017. See also “Corte Suprema de Justicia decide a favor de la tutela interpuesta por la Alianza por la Salud levantando la censura al comercial de Educar Consumidores” [Supreme Court of Justice favours writ of protection presented by Alianza por la Salud, overruling censorship over Educar Consumidores’ ad], RedPaPaz. April 5, 2017, http://bit.ly/2rniQHE
- 15. Constitutional Court, Judgement T-040/13, January 28, 2013, http://bit.ly/1FyIMlk; Constitutional Court, Judgement T-453/13, July 15, 2013, http://bit.ly/1R6lHaO; Constitutional Court, Judgement T-634/13, September 13, 2013, http://bit.ly/1OyMApE
- 16. Constitutional Court, Judgement T-277/15, May 12, 2015, http://bit.ly/1iQCR1b
- 17. Electronic Frontier Foundation, “Google to France: We Won’t Forget It for You Wholesale,” August 3, 2015, http://bit.ly/1P2iyYL
- 18. Fundación Karisma, “Corte Constitucional colombiana decide sobre caso de derecho al olvido en Internet,” [Colombian Constitutional Court decides on right to be forgotten on internet], July 6, 2015, http://bit.ly/1FmskVr
- 19. “‘Roy Barreras’, la ley que se ‘aprobó’ en las redes sociales,” Semana, September 21, 2016, http://bit.ly/2nqdOUP
- 20. FLIP, “Cartografías de la Información,” https://flip.org.co/cartografias-informacion/
- 21. FLIP, “Cartografías de la información: los medios en ocho regiones de Colombia,” [Information Cartographies: media in eight regions of Colombia], http://bit.ly/2hBnXgy
- 22. Although there are studies concerning self-censorship among journalists, to date, there are none concerning self-censorship among ordinary internet users.
- 23. Survey results on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Colombia, September 2016, http://bit.ly/1VDzisl
- 24. The first was rejected in Congress; the second, although it became law, was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court; the third project lost the support of the national government; the last one was introduced to Congress, but later withdrawn.
- 25. “Manisfestación virtual contra la llamada Ley Lleras 2” [Virtual protest against the so-called Lleras 2 Law], El Colombiano, http://bit.ly/1QnK069; “La nueva ley Lleras recarga el ciberespacio de protestas,” [The new Lleras law fills cyberspace with protests], El Colombiano, March 28, 2012, http://bit.ly/1QnPYnn.
- 26. “Estos son los ciudadanos que están sacando la paz a la calle,” Pacifista!, October 6, 2016, http://bit.ly/2eo4S1K
Although prosecutions for online expression are rare in Colombia, harsh penalties for minor copyright violations and criminal penalties for defamation pose a serious threat to users’ rights. In May 2017 a court acquitted a biologist who faced up to eight years in prison for copyright violations after sharing an academic paper on the website Scribd. However, the ruling was challenged on appeal. Although the government has taken some positive steps to prosecute actors who conducted illegal surveillance in recent years, concerns remain over widespread surveillance and violations of privacy.
Article 20 of Colombia’s National Constitution guarantees freedom of information and expression and prohibits prior restraint. Article 73 further provides for the protection of “the liberty and professional independence” of “journalistic activity.” Although there are no specific provisions protecting freedom of expression online, bloggers have the same liberties and protections as print or broadcast journalists.1 The Constitutional Court confirmed the application of such protections to the internet in a 2012 ruling.2
However, Colombia maintains criminal penalties for defamation, which have been applied to online speech. According to the Colombian penal code, individuals accused of insult can face up to six years in jail and a fine of US$3,000 to US$345,000, while individuals accused of libel can face between fifteen months and four and a half years in jail, with the same possible fines.3 Cases pertaining to online defamation have occasionally been brought before the court with varying outcomes.
The penal code includes a concerning provision regarding online publication or reproduction of insults. According to Article 222 of the penal code, “whoever publishes, reproduces, or repeats insult or libel” may also be subject to punishment. This article raises concerns as it leaves open the possibility for charges of indirect insult and libel. The penal code also establishes the use of “social mediums of communication or of other collective divulgence” as an aggravating circumstance that can increase the penalty for insult or libel.4 However, courts have not held intermediaries responsible for defamatory content created or shared by third parties.
Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities
Prosecution, imprisonment, or detention for ICT activities is quite rare in Colombia, and writers, commentators, or bloggers are not systematically subject to imprisonment or fines for posting material on the internet.5
Colombia has harsh penalties for copyright violations and lacks the flexible fair use standards employed in many countries. One ongoing case involves student Diego Gómez, who was charged in 2014 with violating copyright violations for uploading an academic thesis onto Scribd. The author of the thesis filed a criminal complaint.6 Digital rights groups heavily criticized the decision to prosecute the biologist, especially when Gómez did not claim to have authored the thesis and did not profit by sharing it.7 In a positive development in May 2017, a court cleared Gómez of criminal charges,8 though an appeal was pending as of mid-2017. If convicted, Gómez may face up to eight years in prison on top of substantial fines.
Colombia’s first online criminal defamation sentence set a concerning precedent for violations of user rights. In November 2015, the press freedom group FLIP reported it had submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights,9 after Colombian courts convicted Gonzalo López, an internet user who anonymously posted a comment criticizing a public official on a news website.10 López was sentenced to 18 months and 20 days in prison and issued a fine, although he did not serve jail time based on provisions in Colombian law that allow certain defendants to avoid imprisonment depending on their sentence and prior record.11
Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity
Some steps have been taken to punish perpetrators of illegal surveillance, although it seems unlikely that these efforts have changed the overall environment, as intelligence agencies continue to operate with minimal oversight. Concerns about illegal surveillance by certain sectors of the government and military persist, with investigative journalists continuing to uncover grave privacy violations by the police and military.
Episodes of extralegal surveillance carried out by intelligence agencies, the army or the police, have constituted an ongoing scandal in Colombia in recent years. Although investigative journalists have sought to uncover surveillance practices, the scope of government and military surveillance in Colombia is still unclear. Leaks have shown that journalists who cover sensitive issues like the peace process have been subject to monitoring. In late 2015, anonymous informants warned that the National Police had illegally intercepted communications from investigative journalists, notably in relation to news reports alleging that a prostitution network had ties to police.12 A disciplinary investigation against the Director of the National Police was announced;13 who submitted his resignation the next day, although he stated he was innocent.14
Several Colombian civil society organizations have criticized the excessive and apparently uncontrolled use of surveillance tools in the country, which they argue has been facilitated by “weak legislation” on intelligence matters.15 In July 2015, documents leaked from the technology company Hacking Team, which is known to provide spyware to governments, suggested that the Colombian government had contracts with the company. Leaked emails referenced the National Police Office’s purchase of Hacking Team’s Remote Control System (RCS) called “Galileo,” which is capable of accessing and hijacking the target devices’ keyboard, microphone and camera. Police would only acknowledge having contractual ties with a Colombian company called Robotec, which distributes Hacking Team’s services,16 though the leaked documents indicate that the National Police contacted Hacking Team directly to activate spyware.17 Another leaked email suggested that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) may be conducting surveillance in Colombia.18
In September 2015, police reportedly said that they would start testing a centralized platform for monitoring and analysis known as PUMA. They said telephone lines would be subject to monitoring, but not social networks and chats.19 The Prosecutor General’s office had earlier ordered police to stop developing PUMA because of the lack of transparency and guarantees to ensure its lawful use. Journalists initially reported that the government was investing over US$100 million in a monitoring platform in 2013. The system was intended to provide the government with the capacity to intercept telephone and internet communications in real-time, including private messages.20
Courts have sought to rein in illegal surveillance, sentencing former public officials involved in wiretapping scandals. On April 29, 2015, the Supreme Court sentenced Maria del Pilar Hurtado, former director of the government Administrative Security Department (DAS), and Bernardo Moreno, former secretary of the president’s office, to 14 and 8 years in prison, respectively, on charges of illegal intercepting private communications from journalists, politicians, and civil society groups.21 Some military officials were fired in early 2015 following a high profile wiretapping scandal.22
While intercepting personal communications in Colombia is authorized only for criminal investigation purposes and legally requires a judicial order,23 service providers are required to collaborate with intelligence agencies by providing access to the communications history or technical data of any specific user without a warrant.24 Retention and treatment of user data by authorities other than the intelligence agencies and departments related to criminal investigation has not yet been regulated in Colombia. Colombian law also allows intelligence agencies to monitor devices which use the electromagnetic spectrum to transmit wireless communication without a judicial order.25 An additional threat to user privacy comes in the form of Article 2 of Decree 1704 (2012), which requires that ISPs create backdoor access points for criminal investigation purposes—which can be used under the Prosecutor General’s authorization. A service provider that does not comply with these obligations faces fines and could lose its operating license.26
Civil society organizations have raised privacy concerns about several provisions of a new police code published in July 2016. Article 32 defines the right to privacy in narrow terms, only recognizing the right of individuals “to meet their needs and develop their activities in an area that is exclusive and therefore considered private.” On the other hand, Article 139 broadly defines “public space” to include the electromagnetic spectrum. According to organizations such as Dejusticia, such provisions would undermine privacy protections for communications travelling through the electromagnetic spectrum.27 Other provisions have implications for surveillance cameras.28
Colombia has no general restrictions against anonymous communication, and there are no registration requirements for bloggers or cybercafe owners, though users must register to obtain telecommunication services. Police have access to a database that must be maintained by telecommunication service providers. This database contains user data, such as name, ID number, place and residence address, mobile phone number and service activation date.29 Users must provide accurate information under penalty of perjury, which is punishable by a minimum of six years in prison.30
In April 2017, the Prosecutor General announced a proposal to force WhatsApp and other internet intermediaries to decrypt user’s communications for law enforcement purposes.31 Even though the proposal has not been presented, the announcement raised concerns about state’s surveillance ambitions, as well as officials’ lack of understanding regarding technology like encryption.32 (Providers that encrypt communications end-to-end cannot decrypt them.) Since 1993, Colombian law has banned the use of “communication devices that use the electromagnetic spectrum” to send “encrypted messages or messages in unintelligible language.”33 In response to an information request, the ICT ministry explained that those provisions apply only “to the content of the communications, not the encryption of the medium.” Despite the ambiguous wording of the law, the ICT ministry further claimed that these provisions only apply to radio-like devices and not to the internet.34 The Intelligence and Counterintelligence Act stipulates that telecommunications service providers may only offer encrypted voice services to intelligence agencies and “high government” officials.35
Intimidation and Violence
Corruption, longstanding armed conflict and associated surveillance, and the war against drugs are the greatest threats to freedom of expression in Colombia, although online journalists have not been attacked as often as print journalists. There is no broad trend of retaliation specifically for online content, but the high level of intimidation towards media and human rights defenders creates a climate of fear that also affects online journalists.
According to FLIP, at least 16 journalists have been murdered and many more have been threatened since 2005, and at least 90 reported threats in 2016 alone.36 Impunity for perpetrators of violence—a pervasive problem in Colombia’s judicial system—is ranked by the nonprofit PAN’s Freedom of Expression and Access to Information Index as one of the gravest threats to freedom of expression.37 Colombia has the third highest impunity rate on the Global Impunity Index of the Center for Studies on Impunity and Justice Institute.38
Several threats were recorded against online reporters and outlets during the period of coverage:
- In March 2017, Daniel Silva Orrego, a Colombian columnist for the anticorruption website Tras La Cola de la Rata was threatened at gunpoint at his home, and told to halt investigations into corruption, which he exposed in his columns, and related lawsuits.39
- In November 2016, the news website Onda Opita reported threats after it published an article on the alleged involvement of the mayor of Neiva in a corruption case. The mayor reacted to the article on Facebook, denying involvement. Shortly after, Onda Opita received a threatening direct message on Facebook from an anonymous account requesting them to remove the article. A man on a motorbike also issued a verbal death threat outside the site’s offices. The website removed the article.40
In 2017, the press freedom organization FLIP recorded at least four incidents in the first few months of the year after it began systematically tracking these types of incidents.41 In March, for example, the director of Rutas del Conflicto, an outlet specializing in the armed conflict, denounced attacks against its web platform. Reporters noted that some files had been deleted after the site was restored.
Various types of cybercrime, including hacking, illegal interception and use of data, and the distribution and use of malware are criminalized under Law 1273, which was passed in 2009. Penalties range from three to four years’ imprisonment, along with fines.42 While phishing—the stealing of sensitive personal data via malware disguised as legitimate email—appears to be a significant issue in Colombia,43 most evidence of hacking and other interception has involved interagency spying and intelligence work carried out primarily by the government, the army, and other official bodies (see “Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity”).
Following a scandal that implicated military officials in wiretapping abuses in early 2014, President Santos announced the creation of a commission to strengthen national cybersecurity.44 Colombia partnered with the Organization of American States (OAS) to develop the Colombian Cyber Emergency Response Group (coICERT) and the Cyber Police Center (CCP).45 A digital security policy released by the government in April 2016 covered issues ranging from national defense and the protection of critical infrastructure, to cybercrime and digital risk management.46 Civil society groups criticized the policy for focusing on military and economic issues at the expense of broader social and human rights concerns.47
- 1. Several decisions of the Constitutional Court state that Freedom of Expression is a universal right. See for example: Constitutional Court, Judgement C-442/11, May 25, 2011, http://bit.ly/1YG6pic
- 2. Constitutional Court, Judgement T550/12, January 18, 2012, http://bit.ly/1VfPNt8
- 3. Art. 220-222 of the Penal Code, http://bit.ly/1LC0FAz
- 4. Law 599 of 2000, Criminal Code, Title V, http://bit.ly/1ZcoeFG
- 5. The only documented case of an individual going to jail took place in 2010, well before the timeframe of this report. See: “Crónica del ‘Falso Positivo’ de Facebook en nueve episodios,” La Silla Vacia, May 4, 2010, http://bit.ly/1L6Fv9U.
- 6. “Diego Gómez y la importancia de los bienes comunes” [Diego Gómez and the importance of common goods], Pillku Amantes de la libertad, December 17, 2015 http://bit.ly/1oHMK3u
- 7. “Compartir no es un delito” [Sharing is not a crime], El Espectador, July 16, 2014, http://bit.ly/1laphQ5; “Compartir no es un delito,” Las 2 Orillas, December 26, 2014, http://bit.ly/WaUTQ6
- 8. Timothy Vollmer, “Colombian Court Acquits Diego Gómez of Criminal Charges for Sharing a Research Paper Online,” Creative Commons, May 24, 2017, http://bit.ly/2qwrxiI
- 9. FLIP, “Caso de Gonzalo López se presenta ante la CIDH,” [Case of Gonzalo Lopez presented to IACHR], November 20, 2015, http://bit.ly/1kLxuRK
- 10. Colombian law does not prohibit anonymity, so the fact that the post was anonymous did not influence the charges against López.
- 11. Carlos Cortés, “Crónica de una ofensa inofensiva,” [Chronicle of an unoffensive offense], La Silla Vacía, April 17, 2015, http://bit.ly/1ODNXEl
- 12. “‘El Gobierno nos dejó solos’: Claudia Morales,” [The government left us alone], El Espectador, December 19, 2015, http://bit.ly/1Yubc3p
- 13. “Detalles de cómo la Procuraduría decidió abrir una investigación contra Palomino,” [Details on how the prosecutor decided to open an investigation against Palomino], El Espectador, February 16, 2016, http://bit.ly/1S1eaND.
- 14. “Renuncia General Palomino a la Policía Nacional,” [General Palomino resigns from National Police], Caracol Radio, February 17, 2016, http://bit.ly/1mHcJqz
- 15. FLIP, CCJ, Dejusticia, Fundación Karisma and Colnodo, “Colombian Police Ought to Clarify Their Relationship with ‘Hacking Team’,” July 30, 2015, http://bit.ly/1KzZHD4
- 16. “Policía indicó no tener vínculos comerciales con firma Hacking Team” [Police declared that there are no commercial links with Hacking Team], El Tiempo, July 8, 2015, http://bit.ly/1WnPXRJ
- 17. Carolina Botero and Pilar Sáenz, “In Colombia, PUMA is not what it seems,” Digital Rights Latin America & The Caribbean, August 24, 2015, http://bit.ly/1JuchzP
- 18. Ryan Gallagher, “Hacking Team Emails Expose Proposed Death Squad Deal Secret UK Sales Push, and Much More,” The Intercept, July 8, 2015, http://bit.ly/1PCTFmi
- 19. “Plataforma Puma de la Policía entrará en operación, pero limitada,” [Puma Platform will enter into operation, but limited], El Tiempo, September 30, 2015 http://bit.ly/1TtnbAj
- 20. Daniel Valero, “Policía Podrá Interceptar Facebook, Twitter y Skype en Colombia” [Police will be able to tap Facebook, Twitter y Skype in Colombia], El Tiempo, June 23, 2013, http://bit.ly/1Mv2bmO
- 21. “Condena de 14 años para Hurtado y 8 para Bernardo Moreno por chuzadas,” [Sentence of 14 years to Hurtado and 8 years to Bernardo Moreno for ‘Chuzadas’], El Tiempo, April 30, 2015, http://bit.ly/1biN0yV
- 22. "Purga en inteligencia de las Fuerzas Militares por escándalo de Andrómeda” [Purge in intelligence services and military forces because of Andromeda scandal], Blu Radio, January 23, 2015, http://bit.ly/1iAIJdW
- 23. Constitution of 1991, art. 250, http://bit.ly/1KLrfTl
- 24. Statutory Law 1621, art. 44, April 17, 2013, http://bit.ly/1LDxHQX
- 25. Statutory Law 1621, art. 17, April 17, 2013, http://bit.ly/1LDxHQX; See also: Constitutional Court, Judgement C-540/12, 2012, http://bit.ly/1IdXI2t
- 26. Decree 1704, 2012, art. 7. http://bit.ly/1YGdzTA
- 27. Privacy International, Dejusticia, Fundación Karisma, “Submission in advance of the consideration of the periodic report of Colombia, Human Rights Committee, 118th Session, 17 October – 04 November 2016,” September 2016, http://bit.ly/2irBIhM
- 28. Center of research Dejusticia, “Files suit to protect the right to privacy under the new police code in Colombia”, January 29 2017, http://bit.ly/2roBZWq
- 29. Law 418 of 1997, art. 99, http://bit.ly/1Gw5sg9; and Resolution 0912, 2008 of the National Police, Diario Oficial, Año CXLIV, Nº 47.233, January 15, 2009.
- 30. The penal code outlines penalties for perjury of bearing “false witness.” Penal Code, art. 442, http://bit.ly/1S3N9sT.
- 31. “Fiscalía pide mayor acceso a redes sociales de judicializados” [Prosecutor’s Offices demands better Access to convicted’s social networks]. El Colombiano. March 30, 2017. http://bit.ly/2pDF18e
- 32. Larotta, S. “Romper el cifrado de Whatsapp, una mala idea” [Break WhatsApp encryption. A Bad Idea], April, 2017. http://bit.ly/2pDLArq
- 33. Law 418 (1997) art. 102, http://bit.ly/1PXVz1z
- 34. Communication Nº 811811, ICT Ministry to Karisma Foundation, April 27 of 2015.
- 35. Statutory Law 1621, art. 44, April 17, 2013, http://bit.ly/1LDxHQX
- 36. Fundación Para La Libertad De Prensa (FLIP), “Periodistas Asesinados” [Journalists killed], http://bit.ly/1Gbwn7u
- 37. Survey results on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Colombia, September 2015, pg. 43-46, http://bit.ly/1VDzisl
- 38. Centro de Estudios sobre Impunidad y Justicia, “Índice Global de Impunidad 2015,” [Global Impunity Index 2015], Universidad de las Américas Puebla, April 2015, pg. 39-42, http://bit.ly/1KPhqdy
- 39. Committee to Protect Journalists, “Colombian columnist threatened at gunpoint after reporting on corruption,” March 28, 2017, http://bit.ly/2iX6gf1
- 40. “FLIP se pronuncia ante amenazas a Periodistas de Onda Opita,” Onda Capita, November 23, 2016, http://www.ondaopita.com/?p=3000
- 41. See: https://flip.org.co/index.php/es/atencion-a-periodistas/mapa-de-agresio…
- 42. Rachel Glickhouse, “Explainer: Fighting Cybercrime in Latin America,” Americas Society/Council of the Americas Online, November 14, 2013, http://bit.ly/1FyUXP1
- 43. Mimi Yagoub, “Cyber Crime in Colombia: An Underestimated Threat?” InSight Crime, July 11, 2014, http://bit.ly/1PCXnMS
- 44. “En Ciberseguridad, ‘Estamos en Pañales’ y Expuestos a Todo Tipo de Ataques: Santos” [In Cybersecurity, ‘We are in Diapers’ and Exposed to All Kinds of Attacks], El Espectador, February 8, 2014, http://bit.ly/1d6jM4J
- 45. Phillip Acuña, “Colombia to receive cyber-security assistance from international experts,” Colombia Reports, March 31, 2014, http://bit.ly/1YGfveW; Carolina Botero Cabrera “Intimidad vs Seguridad un año después” [Privacy v. Security one year after], El Espectador, April 2, 2015, http://bit.ly/1DBAHEA.
- 46. Ministry of ICT, “Colombia cuenta con una Política Nacional de Seguridad Digital” [Colombia has a National Digital Security Policy], April 13, 2016, http://bit.ly/1SACmC0
- 47. Castañeda, Juan Diego, “Qué es el conpes de seguridad digital y por qué está mal” [What is the CONPES of digital security and why is wrong?] Fundación Karisma, June 3, 2016, https://karisma.org.co/que-es-el-conpes-de-seguridad-digital-y-por-que-…
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Global Freedom Score66 100 partly free
Internet Freedom Score66 100 partly free