Ecuador

Partly Free
62
100
A Obstacles to Access 17 25
B Limits on Content 25 35
C Violations of User Rights 20 40
Last Year's Score & Status
57 100 Partly Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free)

header1 Overview

Ecuador’s score improved considerably this year, mainly reflecting a lack of disruptions to connectivity during the coverage period that had previously been imposed in relation to mass protests in October 2019. Positive strides are being made in Ecuador towards increasing diversity in online content, as well as in the robustness of the country’s legal framework. Despite some hopeful trends, government actors continue to wield murky copyright claims in attempts to get critical content removed, journalists remain susceptible to legal recourse for their online activities, and a socioeconomic and geographic digital divide persists.

Elections take place regularly, and some key state institutions have recently displayed greater independence. A leftist government led by former president Rafael Correa was elected in 2007, and the subsequent decade was characterized by both economic growth and severe strain on democratic institutions. Lenín Moreno was elected in 2017 as Correa’s chosen successor, and adopted more conservative economic policies, while allowing greater space for civil society and the press. That government’s popularity plummeted following a harsh crackdown on the 2019 anti-austerity movement and the severe economic and public health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Conservative Guillermo Lasso won the presidency in a contested two-round electoral contest that ended in April 2021, taking office in May.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2020 – May 31, 2021

  • In a positive reversal from the previous coverage period, there were no restrictions to mobile or fixed-line connectivity or to the ability to share multimedia content (see A3, B1, and B8).
  • The country’s ombudsman condemned the former Moreno government’s arbitrary use of copyright law as censorship, as the executive continued to use these tactics in attempts to get unfavorable news coverage taken down (see B2).
  • Online debate around the 2021 general election featured inauthentic actors and disinformation campaigns, though their genuine impact was minimal (see B5).
  • The creators of online content and the topics they address have continued to diversify in Ecuador, as citizen journalism outlets and media serving Indigenous communities have gradually gained larger followings (see B7).
  • The National Assembly ratified an amendment to Article 5 of the Communication Law in January 2021, bringing a years-long debate on the definition of communication media as either public service or a right to a close (see C1).
  • A data protection law was approved in May 2021 that creates an independent body for data protection and is considered one of the most advanced pieces of legislation of its kind in the region (see C6).

A Obstacles to Access

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 4.004 6.006

Internet access in Ecuador has increased over the past few years. According to the Agency for the Regulation of Telecommunications (ARCOTEL), 67.55 percent of the population had internet access by March 2021, compared to 45.91 percent five years prior.1

Fixed-line broadband penetration is relatively low, at 13.16 percent as of March 2021.2 Six percent of the 221 Ecuadorian cantons (subdivisions of provinces) lack fiber-optic cable infrastructure to connect to the internet, phone services, or digital television, according to an October 2018 report from Ministry of Telecommunications (MINTEL).3 According to Speedtest Global Index, the average fixed-line broadband download speed in June 2021 was 33.69 megabits per second (Mbps), and the average upload speed was 29.20 Mbps,4 compared to an average download speed of 24.54 Mbps and average upload speed of 21.11 Mbps in June of the previous year.

Meanwhile, mobile internet penetration stood at 54.39 percent as of March 2021.5 Government data shows that, as of May 2021, 8.92 million out of 16 million active mobile lines were using long term evolution (LTE) technology.6

The government’s Universal Service Plan for 2018–21 aims to increase availability and access nationwide, notably by deploying up-to-date technologies such as LTE and fiber-optic networks in previously underserved areas.7 In July 2019, the government announced the Digital Ecuador policy, which is meant to create an electronic government in conjunction with stronger connectivity.8 The policy is comprised of three axes—connectivity, efficiency and digital security, and innovation and competitiveness—and is aligned with the government’s Internet for All plan. The latter, launched in November 2019, aims to raise national connectivity to 98 percent by 2021, including by increasing 4G connectivity and deploying 5G networks.9 As of February 2021, the policies for the deployment of 5G networks were still pending.10

A2 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 1.001 3.003

Internet access is relatively expensive. A monthly internet subscription cost an average of $31 in 2020.1 The average cost of 1 GB mobile data fell to $1.06 in 2021, down from $3.24 the previous year.2 A household earning the minimum wage, which was $400 per month in 2020, would need to spend about 23 percent of their monthly income to afford landline, mobile-phone, internet, and cable-television services.3 As of September 2020, 23.4 percent of the workforce earned less than the minimum wage.

The government implemented several initiatives to keep internet access affordable during the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 22nd, 2020, MINTEL prohibited mobile service providers and internet service providers (ISPs) from cutting services for nonpayment during the pandemic-related emergency, with the grace period ending that November.4 In September 2020, the Ecuadorian Association of Internet and Value-Added Providers (AEPROVI) reported that 50 percent of its subscribers had stopped paying for residential fixed-line services since the pandemic began.5 MINTEL and the National Telecommunications Corporation (CNT), a state-owned ISP, also offered a service entitled “the student chip” to connect students to online instruction platforms created by the Ministry of Education. “The student chip” provides 5 GB of internet access for $5.59 to 4 million children attending public schools.6

Socioeconomic and geographic disparities in internet access persist in Ecuador, though the government has introduced initiatives to narrow the gaps. Underserved zones are mostly in the Amazon region, but other areas lacking infrastructure include the southern mountains, the coastline, and the Galapagos Islands. According to baseline statistics compiled for the Internet for All plan in 2019, around 38 percent of the country’s parishes lack a mobile internet connection, and only 16 percent of parishes have 4G connectivity.7 As part of the plan, the cost of fixed services was reduced to $9.50 by March 2020 in 214 rural parishes. In addition, recipients of the Human Development Bonus, a cash transfer program, received lower mobile rates from private operator Claro.8

There is a significant divide in internet access between urban and rural households. Nonetheless, official statistics showed a significant spike in internet access between 2018 and 2019. Urban access went up to 56.1 percent from 46.6 percent, while access in rural households went up to 21.6 percent from 16.1 percent.9 Fixed-line subscriptions remain concentrated in two provinces with higher levels of urbanization: Guayas (28 percent of subscriptions) and Pichincha (31 percent).10 Among people aged 15 to 49, digital illiteracy is also significantly greater in rural areas (20 percent) than in urban areas (7.8 percent), and heavily impacts Indigenous people and marginalized ethnic groups. Digital illiteracy is also greater among women (12.1 percent) than men (10.6 percent).11

State-run “Infocentros” provide free internet in rural areas.12 As of January 2020, there were 886 Infocentros and 25 larger “Megainfocentros,” covering 727 rural and underserved urban parishes, or 59 percent of all parishes.13 Their future came into doubt in 2020, however, due to budget concerns.14

A3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 6.006 6.006

Score Change: The score improved from 4 to 6 because there were no connectivity disruptions during the coverage period unlike disruptions during protests held in October 2019.

There were no internet disruptions in Ecuador during the coverage period, and no evidence of throttling or network shutdowns. Social media and communications and video streaming platforms remained readily available. However, disruptions to internet access have occurred in the past. Amid mass protests in October 2019, government-owned CNT experienced general connectivity disruptions and disrupted access to Facebook and WhatsApp (see B1 and B8).1 For a brief period later that month, mobile service provider Claro allegedly imposed connectivity interruptions across large swathes of the country and in Quito.2

Ecuador’s physical infrastructure is not highly centralized. Three submarine cables provide connection to the global internet, and three major ISPs—two of which are private—control their own national infrastructure. 3

A provision in the 2015 Organic Law of Telecommunications grants the president the power to unilaterally take over telecommunications services in times of national emergency.4 Civil society groups have raised concerns over the provision’s scope and the possibility for government abuse due to the vague standards of the law and the lack of independent or impartial oversight.5

A4 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 4.004 6.006

Ecuador has four major ISPs covering more than 80 percent of the market. The state-owned CNT dominates the market with 41.36 percent of the share of fixed-line services. The other three are: Megadatos (17.48 percent), Setel (11.25 percent), and Conecel (Claro) (11.22 percent). Mobile service providers, on the other hand, are an oligopoly: Conecel (Claro) holds 58.18 percent of the market, followed by Otecel (Movistar) with 26.15 percent, and CNT with 15.67 percent.1

A January 2019 report from the country’s general comptroller investigated concessions awarded to TELCONET to build a submarine cable and found irregularities in the process.2 The report was referred to the attorney general’s office to undertake a criminal investigation.3 Audio leaks released by news site La Posta in January 2019 suggested that former ARCOTEL officials manipulated the ISP market’s competitiveness by awarding concessions to providers whose owners had ties to former vice president Jorge Glas.4 The investigation appeared to be ongoing, but no further information was made public as of May 2021. 5

A5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 2.002 4.004

Created by the 2015 Organic Law of Telecommunications, ARCOTEL is linked to MINTEL and is responsible for technical aspects of administration, regulation, and control of the telecommunications sector and the radioelectric spectrum.1 ARCOTEL’s directors are appointed directly by the president, a process that may undermine the body’s independence.2

The agency has had frequent director-level turnover, with eight changes in leadership between 2017 and 2020.3 Juan Carlos Martínez, who was removed after just five days in office in January 2019, claimed that his dismissal was linked to his aim to combat corruption within the agency.4 In March 2020, Ricardo Freire Granja—who held office between January 2019 and March 2020—was fired for delaying the schedule for the allocation of radio and television frequencies for almost a year. The new director, Xavier Aguirre Pozo, previously served as information undersecretary.5

Access providers and other internet-related organizations are allowed and, to a certain extent, are encouraged to establish self-regulatory mechanisms. Examples of this include the public assistance to develop public and private Computer Security Incident Response Teams (CSIRT); the local internet exchange point (NAP.ec) managed by AEPROVI; and the Ecuadorian IPv6 Task Force, among others. The allocation of digital assets—such as domain names or internet protocol (IP) addresses, which are designated by NIC.ec—is not controlled by the government. 6 The former media regulator, the Superintendency of Information and Communications (SUPERCOM), was eliminated in July 2019 by the reform to the Communication Law that went into effect in February 2020. SUPERCOM was highly criticized for acting as a tool for political censorship.7

B Limits on Content

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 6.006 6.006

Score Change: The score improved from 5 to 6 because there were no disruptions to content delivery networks or backend image servers during the coverage period, unlike disruptions during protests held in October 2019.

Systematic blocking or filtering of content is not common in Ecuador. There were no reports of technical blocking of social media platforms, communication apps, blog-hosting platforms, or discussion forums during the coverage period. Likewise, there were no reports of blocking of tools for anonymization of navigation or circumvention of censorship.

During the previous coverage period, however, CNT did disrupt its content delivery network and backend image servers following the death of a protester in October 2019. These allow for the circulation of audio, images, and videos, and fixed-line internet users were briefly unable to share such content via WhatsApp and Facebook.1 The national copyright directorate of the National Service of Intellectual Rights had also instructed providers to block some URLs and IPs earlier that summer for violating transmissions rights and copyright infringement.2

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 2.002 4.004

Under former president Correa, copyright law was frequently used to censor politically sensitive content online.1 Though this practice eased considerably during the first two years of Moreno’s presidency, there has been concern about the use of copyright and privacy complaints for censorship purposes since 2019.2 Platforms like Twitter have suspended the accounts of multiple outlets and journalists under these complaints, often for information linked to the former Correa administration or for images or video of Moreno.3 Whether such suspensions are justified by legitimate violations of the companies’ terms of use is often unclear.

In July 2020, the president’s office, through Iomart Group PLC, a UK firm, requested the removal of five news reports from the media outlet La Historia, ostensibly due to copyright violations for the use of photographs of Moreno and other government officials that belonged to the presidency and the communication secretary. The stories in question referred to Moreno’s daughter’s position in the Ecuadorian foreign service, political negotiations, accusations of corruption involving allies of the governing coalition, corruption investigations in the health sector, and a report on another takedown request by the presidency made months earlier for a video on La Historia’s Twitter account.4 Ecuador’s ombudsman ordered the Communications Secretariat to withdraw the suit shortly thereafter, condemning the arbitrary use of copyright law by public institutions as censorship.5

Previously, in December 2019, Twitter suspended the account of the ombudsman’s office for three days, shortly after it published an access-to-information report. While the suspension apparently occurred after the account was reported for spamming, Twitter never provided an official justification.6 In July of that year, Twitter also suspended the account of investigative news site La Fuente. The site had been removed by its server that month without notice due to a copyright-infringement complaint lodged by the presidency. Though not specified, the articles related to Moreno, other politicians, and the now-defunct site INA Papers, which had disclosed content including documents related to offshore accounts under the name of Moreno’s brother. La Fuente ultimately moved to another server and, spurred by multiple censorship attempts around corruption investigations, changed its name to Periodismo de Investigación (Investigative Journalism) and created a new Twitter account.7

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 2.002 4.004

Reforms to the Communication Law, enacted in February 2019, seemed to promise a less restrictive environment for media outlets. The reform signaled a move away from the punitive system established under the former Correa administration, which was highly politicized and prone to abuse.

A significant element of the Communication Law reforms was the elimination of SUPERCOM. Under the Correa government, SUPERCOM had aggressively pursued print media (including all media with an online presence), accusing them of unbalanced reporting and “media lynching”—an allegation that was often applied to investigative reporting in Ecuador.1 The reforms also removed digital media and content providers’ liability over user comments, while upholding their responsibility over editorial content published by uncredited authors.2

However, ARCOTEL is still authorized to block internet domains that violate national laws. ARCOTEL’s agenda for 2019 included the development of a technical norm that should add more transparency by outlining blocking and notification procedures to be followed by the regulator.3 The development of this technical norm was still pending as of May 2021. There are currently no efficient and timely avenues of appeal for content subject to censorship.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 3.003 4.004

Coverage of corruption cases and government abuses of power has increased in recent years. News related to drug trafficking and armed groups on the northern border with Colombia must be treated with special care.

Despite the lower levels of self-censorship, coverage of sensitive events has been found to vary between traditional mass media and independent digital outlets. Researchers found, for instance, that reporting on the October 2019 protests followed a government narrative for the former, while the latter tended to cover events from the perspectives of the protesters.1

B5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 2.002 4.004

Progovernment trolling, harassment of critics, and punitive media restrictions were particularly prevalent under former president Correa. Though government-led manipulation tactics eased after Moreno took office, there has been evidence of information manipulation by current government over the past two years.

Inauthentic activity and disinformation campaigns relating to the February 2021 electoral period was noted in the months surrounding the vote. In March 2021, Facebook removed a network of 390 Facebook accounts, 6 pages, and 17 Instagram accounts targeting Ecuador and originating in Spain and Argentina. Though their authentic followings were small, with about 70 accounts following one or more of the pages and around 1,100 users following one of the Instagram accounts, their content mainly involved the 2021 presidential election, including allegations of corruption and general criticism of candidate Andrés Arauz.1 High rates of engagement with Ecuadorian electoral Twitter content originating in Venezuela were also recorded during the electoral run-up. Elector Ecuador noted evidence of eight Twitter campaigns against then presidential candidate Guillermo Lasso, and one such Twitter campaign against Arauz.2 ProBox reported 36 trending topics in Venezuela that referred to the Ecuadorian elections.3 Disinformation campaigns about both candidates spread on WhatsApp around this period. 4

Efforts to counteract electoral disinformation also emerged during the coverage period. Ahead of the February 2021 electoral round, for instance, the Ecuador Verifica initiative was created with the purpose of combating misinformation and fact-checking presidential candidates. Ecuador Verifica included 14 media and 9 civil society organizations, as well as 7 universities, with support from the National Democratic Institute.5

Developments around electoral inauthentic activity from previous elections also surfaced during the coverage period. In July 2020, Facebook removed 41 Facebook accounts, 77 pages, and 56 Instagram accounts for violating their foreign-interference policy. The accounts’ activities originated in Canada and Ecuador and mainly targeted El Salvador, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Chile. Facebook found links to political consultants and former government employees in Ecuador and a Canadian public-relations firm known as Estraterra.6 The network was particularly active in Ecuador during the 2017 presidential campaign period, though it continued to produce content about Ecuadorian politics and the country’s COVID-19 response throughout April 2020.7

During the previous coverage period, an investigation by Código Vidrio alleged that the COVID-19 pandemic was exploited by Correa and his supporters to orchestrate coordinated disinformation campaigns. A series of 13 disinformation campaigns included fabricated content showing corpses on city streets and mass graves being dug in the city of Guayaquil, one of the country’s first COVID-19 hotspots. Coordination for campaigns originating from Ecuador reportedly occurred through at least 25 groups on the messaging app Telegram. Members disseminated content on Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter. Other disinformation campaigns originated in countries such as Mexico and Argentina, where several former officials and intelligence agents live.8

B6 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 2.002 3.003

The 2019 reforms to the Communication Law maintained the Article 6 ban on foreign ownership of media in Ecuador. Financial corporations and their shareholders are also banned from making media investments under Article 312 of the constitution and Article 256 of the Organic Monetary and Financial Code.1 As of August 2020, foreign providers of digital services, including news outlets and social media platforms, must pay value-added tax of 12 percent.2

There is a general mandate to protect net neutrality in both the Culture Act (Article 5) and the Organic Law of Telecommunications (Articles 3, 4, and 66). However, Article 64 of the latter act allows ISPs to establish “tariff plans consisting of one or more services, or for one or more products of a service, in accordance with his or her authorization certificates.” This provision may allow providers to set different speeds for different content, websites, or apps. Nonetheless, there is no evidence that ISPs are operating in a way that might violate net neutrality.

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity and reliability? 3.003 4.004

Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 to reflect a gradual increase in citizen journalism and greater inclusion of Indigenous voices in the digital landscape.

A wide array of media outlets has emerged in Ecuador in the last decade. Since the blocking of websites is not an issue, regular internet users do not need to use virtual private networks (VPNs) or other circumvention tools to access online news. Limited funds for independent media and a history of censorship have contributed to domination by the digital versions of traditional outlets in the online sphere, such as the websites for popular outlets El Comercio and El Universo.1

Nonetheless, small independent digital media outlets like Gk.city and Mil Hojas have become influential because of their investigative reporting. There are some digital media outlets, including blogs, that focus on matters affecting the Indigenous population. Recent initiatives like Lanceros Digitales, a communication collective of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONAIE), seek to reach communities that are underserved by traditional media and report on their realities using digital platforms.2 Indigenous groups have also amassed significant social media followings. CONAIE’s Facebook page, for instance, had over 270,000 followers as of July 2021.3 Outlets devoted to Indigenous communities still tend to publish content in Spanish, rather than Indigenous languages, which remains an obstacle.

B8 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 5.005 6.006

Score Change: The score improved from 4 to 5 because disruptions to connectivity that impacted users’ ability to share content during protests in the previous coverage period did not recur.

There are no legal restrictions around digital advocacy or online communities, and social media has continued to serve as a social-mobilization tool in Ecuador. In recent years, there have been waves of social media activism around women’s rights. Users have turned to Facebook and Twitter to express indignation about femicide and gender-based violence (GBV) and to advocate for the legalization of abortion in specific instances.1 During 2019 debates in the National Assembly about the decriminalization of abortion in cases of rape, for instance, the use of the hashtag #AbortoPorViolacion (abortion in case of rape) proliferated on social media. Though decriminalization was initially voted down, the Constitutional Court eventually ruled in its favor for pregnancies resulting from rape in April 2021.2

Connectivity disruptions have prevented information sharing during protests in the past. Users were briefly prevented from sharing photographs, images, and audio recordings via WhatsApp and Facebook during October 2019 demonstrations because of disruptions (see A3 and B1). Members of the press also found themselves attacked by police while covering the same protests.3 However, Ecuadorians were ultimately able to use Twitter and Facebook extensively to express opinions and call for action.

C Violations of User Rights

C1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 3.003 6.006

The Ecuadorian legal framework has undergone significant change since the Correa era that have rendered it more favorable to online freedom of expression. The constitution grants “universal access to information technologies and communication” (Article 16.2) and confers the ability to exercise one’s right to communication, information, and freedom of expression (Article 384).

Years of debate on the categorization of communication media as a public service finally ended in January 2021. The National Assembly established this definition in December 2015 by amending Article 384 of the 2013 Communication Law to categorize communication as a public service. The move drew criticism for its potential to undermine freedom of expression and open the way for broad media regulation.1 Though the Constitutional Court nullified the amendments in August 2018, 2 reforms to Article 5 in 2019 maintained the media’s public-service role.3 Moreno sent the National Assembly a partial reform to that article in January 2019, removing the public-service characterization and reinstating communication as a right.4

In December 2020, the National Assembly approved a reform to Article 5 limiting the definition of communication media to radio, television, and press, and their associated internet domains. Then president Moreno lodged a partial objection the following month, proposing one instead that could be applied to digital platforms—and even to journalists’ personal social media accounts.5 In January 2021, the National Assembly ratified its reforms over the president’s objections.6 Though this debate has been resolved, discussions of the legal framework for media and free expression are bound to continue under President Lasso. Upon his election, Lasso announced a plan to send a new communications bill to legislators named the “Freedom of the Press Law.”7

Several other restrictive provisions contained in the 2013 Communication Law were reformed in February 2019.8 Important changes included the elimination of the mandatory media code of conduct (Article 10) and the prohibition on media lynching that was used to prevent journalists from investigating corruption. Furthermore, SUPERCOM, which oversaw compliance, was eliminated. However, the office of the audience ombudsman—an important resource to which citizens appealed when discriminatory content was published—was disbanded under these reforms.9 A proposal to reform the Organic Law on Transparency and Access to Public Information was presented to the National Assembly that year. It aimed to limit the scope of “reserved information” that had been used to curtail access to public information in the past, though it was not approved by the outgoing legislature during the coverage period.10

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 2.002 4.004

While former president Moreno reformed legislation that penalized various online activities, penal-code provisions that affect online speech remain. Legislators considered even stricter reforms during the coverage period, though President Lasso successfully halted some of those efforts after taking office.

Penal-code changes that entered into force in August 2014 eliminated criminal charges for insult but retained them for slander and libel.1 Article 396 of the penal code notably punishes expressions that “discredit or dishonor” with imprisonment of 15 to 30 days (see C3). Article 179 restricts protections for whistleblowers by establishing a prison sentence of six months to one year for any person “who, by virtue of [their] state or office, employment, profession, or art, has knowledge of a secret whose divulgement might cause harm to another and reveals it.” The article makes no exceptions for revealing information in the public interest. Article 229 places further restrictions on divulging information by banning the revelation of registered information, databases, or archives through electronic systems in a way that violates another’s intimacy or privacy, with no exceptions for whistleblowers or journalists. Article 307 establishes a penalty of five to seven years in prison for creating economic panic by “publishing, spreading, or divulging false news that causes harm to the national economy in order to alter the prices of goods.”

A law passed by the National Assembly during the coverage period sought to expand some of the problematic articles in the penal code and introduce others into the legal framework.2 In May 2021, a majority of legislators approved the Law to Prevent and Combat Digital Sexual Violence and Strengthen the Fight against Computer Crimes.3 Though the bill aimed to protect women and children from online gender-based violence, it quickly raised alarms for civil society and media organizations who viewed multiple provisions as threats to free speech and uninhibited reporting.4 Articles 11 and 16 of the Digital Violence Law—which would expand the already-restrictive Articles 179 and 396 of the penal code, respectively—were of particular concern. The former would establish heightened penalties of one to three years for those found guilty of “divulging secrets” in the form of personal digital content, such as messages, photographs, or videos.5 Like the existing provision, this proposed reform did not contain a public-interest exception.6 The proposed reform to Article 396 would extend existing penalties for “expressions that discredit or dishonor” to those expressed over information and communication technologies.7

President Lasso partially vetoed the bill in June 2021 and the National Assembly agreed with many of his objections in July.8 Consequently, some of the more problematic provisions did not ultimately become codified in law. A public-interest exception was added, for instance, to Article 179 of the penal code. However, Article 396 retained the proposed penalties for digitally discrediting or dishonoring others.9

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 3.003 6.006

Lawsuits threatening social media users and online journalists have lessened in recent years and are regularly withdrawn or dismissed.1 Charges for critical online speech were levelled against one journalist during the coverage period, however, and a prominent case from 2019 still remains outstanding.

In October 2020, television host Juan Sarmiento received a 10-day prison term and a $100 fine, and was ordered to offer a public apology, over a criminal complaint filed by Napo provincial governor Patricio Espíndola. Espíndola alleged that Sarmiento caused emotional and moral damage and harmed his dignity via a Facebook post where he criticized Espíndola’s management of the COVID-19 crisis, as well as through episodes of Tendencia Digital, a news program Sarmiento hosted and directed that was both posted on Facebook and run on television.2 Espíndola called for a 15– to 30-day sentence, the maximum allowed under Article 396 of the penal code (see C2).3 Sarmiento appealed in October, but his appeal was rejected in November. Several weeks later, Sarmiento traveled to Peru under the protection of a program for at-risk journalists. He was detained upon his return to Ecuador in February 2021 but was released the next day because his arrest warrant had already expired.4

In April 2019, Ecuadorian police arrested Ola Bini, a Swedish digital security expert with links to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and placed him under investigation for “alleged participation in attacks against the integrity of computer systems.”5 Based on the lack of incriminating information, human rights defenders said that his arrest was arbitrary.6 The Ecuadorian government attributed his detention to an alleged scheme to blackmail then president Moreno over Ecuador’s disassociation from Assange,7 as Bini had visited Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London over 10 times.8 Bini was arrested on the same day that, after more than six years, Ecuador revoked Assange’s asylum and British authorities removed him from the embassy.9 Moreno asserted that Assange was establishing a spying center within the embassy from which he was interfering with the democratic stability of several countries, including Ecuador.10 Bini was released from detention in June 2019, after the Provincial Court of Pichincha granted his lawyers’ request for habeas corpus.11 As of January 2021, however, his case was still in a preliminary status; he remained barred from leaving Ecuador and was required to appear at the prosecutor’s office weekly.12

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 3.003 4.004

Neither anonymous nor encrypted communications are banned in Ecuador, and users of encryption are not subject to turn over their encryption keys without a court mandate. The recent reforms of the Communication Law eliminated requirements for users to register with their name and government identification number to make comments in digital forums and news sites.1

Registration of cell phones and SIM cards using a national ID, however, is mandatory.2 ISPs are required to submit the IP addresses of their clients without a judicial order upon request by ARCOTEL.3

C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 2.002 6.006

Concerns for internet users’ privacy emerged during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and continued into the following coverage period.

The government authorized and deployed a number of location-tracking platforms and technologies during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in an apparent effort to monitor the spread of the coronavirus. Each one sparked major concern from civil society organizations, who criticized the lack of transparency around the storage and use of data, the extreme potential for privacy violations, the likelihood of disproportionate and discriminate use, and the unchecked invasiveness of the apps and technologies in question.1 These concerns were raised, for instance, when then interior minister María Paula Romo announced in March 2020 that Moreno’s state-of-emergency decree authorized the government to deploy location-tracking technology, via satellite and mobile phones, on those who were under “a state of sanitary quarantine and/or compulsory isolation.”2 Authorities did not disclose how the data would be processed, how long data would be stored, and what other purposes data could be used for, if any.3

The government released the Salud EC App that same month, which allowed users to report COVID-19 symptoms. Digital rights activists were troubled by its excessive permission requests, which required users to allow access to read, modify, and delete stored content, including multimedia files.4 Shortly thereafter, MINTEL presented its tracking platform, which integrates data from tracking technology and Salud EC, as well as from mobile service providers and the national emergency response system, ECU911. Critics noted that users lacked clear legal protections and warned that the platform could be used in ways that violate users’ privacy.5 In April 2020, Romo acknowledged the invasiveness of GPS tracking in a television interview. She stated that the authorities were working on an app that would align with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of the European Union.6 In September 2020, Romo responded to a question regarding the alleged use of telephone interception equipment provided by G12 Impact, Verint Web Intelligence, and Plataforma Trapdoor by evasively stating that tracking equipment was only being used by the National Police in criminal investigations with judicial authorization.7

Additional developments unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic about the government’s access to surveillance equipment surfaced during the coverage period. In December 2020, Citizen Lab included Ecuador in a list of 25 countries where governments were likely customers of surveillance company Circles. Clients can monitor calls, text messages, and mobile-phone geolocation by exploiting weaknesses in mobile telecommunications infrastructure.8

Prior to recent privacy concerns, the Ecuadorian government had a history of surveilling its citizens by means of communications technology. Created in 2009, the National Secretariat of Intelligence (SENAIN) oversaw the production of “strategic SIGINT [signals intelligence] for the integral security of the state, society and democracy.” Most of its budget was allocated to “special expenses for communications and counterintelligence.”9 Leaked Correa-era documents exposed compelling evidence that the government engaged in surveillance of a wide range of individuals, including illegal spying on politicians, journalists, and activists.10 Moreno eliminated SENAIN in September 2018 and created the Strategic Intelligence Center (CIES).11 Despite SENAIN’s closure, CIES received all its functions, competences, attributions, rights, obligations, resources, and budget.12

The Ecuadorian intelligence apparatus has access to extensive surveillance capabilities. An April 2019 New York Times investigation showed that ECU911 was a central piece of a massive surveillance system under Correa.13 The system began to be developed in 2011 by Chinese state-owned firm CEIEC, as well as Huawei. As of January 2021, there were around 4,779 cameras deployed across the country.14 These cameras transmit live to ECU911 headquarters and a direct mirror reportedly exists at CIES offices.15 There have also been reports about the application of facial recognition technology in certain places such as airports.16

The efficacy of the CIES’s surveillance capabilities were questioned in October 2019, when government officials and legislators agreed that the body had failed to provide strategic intelligence to prevent and counteract that month’s protests. CIES had reportedly based their intelligence assessment on disinformation circulated through social media, rather than on actual intelligence work. In response to CIES’s perceived shortcomings, a bill was proposed that would require all entities part of the country’s intelligence apparatus to continually share information with CIES.17 The bill was never officially considered by the National Assembly that ended its term in May 2021.

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies infringe on users’ right to privacy? 4.004 6.006

Under the rules of the Organic Law of Telecommunications, ISPs are obliged by ARCOTEL to “provide technical, economic, financial, legal documents, and in general, any form or request for information” and to “allow inspections to facilities and systems.”1 In September 2018, ARCOTEL approved a technical standard for the registration of subscribers or customers of telecommunications services and broadcasting services. This technical norm establishes that services providers must protect personal data in their databases and cannot use such data for any other purpose without explicit informed consent from the customer.2

In September 2019, after a large data breach (see C8), the government hastily introduced a draft of the Organic Law on Personal Data Protection to the National Assembly. The draft was based on two years’ worth of work by government agencies in consultation with civil society organizations.3 The proposed legislation established sanctions on unauthorized use of personal data by both public and private entities and forbade the use of personal data for anything that exceeds the original purpose.4 The National Assembly started to debate the bill in February 2021.5

The bill was approved in May 2021.6 The new law creates an independent body for data protection, the Superintendency for the Protection of Personal Data, and is seen as potentially the most advanced data protection legislation in the region.

Still, judges can compel ISPs by means of a court order to provide communication data to law enforcement agencies. Content intercepted via internet surveillance is admissible in court and can be used to convict defendants under Articles 476 and 528 of the criminal code. Since 2015, the Subsystem for Interception of Communications or Computer Data (SICOM) of the attorney general’s office allows interception of voice calls and short-message service (SMS) texts of criminal suspects.7

Mobile operators are required to implement technology that would automatically provide the physical location of mobile phone users for emergency purposes, within an accuracy range of 50 meters.8

C7 1.00-5.00 pts0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in relation to their online activities? 2.002 5.005

Online journalists and activists have generally experienced lower levels of intimidation in recent years. However, threats to physical safety against critical users and journalists for online platforms persist, including some leveled by those with connections to powerful government officials.

Explosives have been used to target digital journalists during both this coverage period and the one before. In December 2020, two unlit sticks of dynamite were found in the home of MPNoticias journalist Mario Pinto. Though it is unclear whether the dynamite, which was ready to detonate should the fuse have been lit, was placed in the home in retaliation for Pinto’s coverage, he has been recognized as one of the first journalists in the area to shed light on a local criminal group engaged in the smuggling of drugs and people.1 In February 2020, the founder of Facebook channel VA Televisión, Víctor Aguirre, was targeted by an explosive device that detonated in his home. He had been critical of the mayor of the city of Naranjal, who had threatened Aguirre with “bodily harm” after he reported on a clash between protesters and the mayor in October 2019.2 Aguirre and his wife were home during the attack but were uninjured.

Intimidation against critical voices continued during the coverage period. In August 2020, cartoonist Xavier “Bonil” Bonilla tweeted a cartoon he had drawn for a newspaper caricaturing Jacobo Bucaram Pulley, the son of former president Abdalá Bucaram. Jacobo Bucaram had been evading justice regarding alleged corruption in the acquisition and sale of medical supplies, which Bonilla portrayed in his cartoon, alongside the text “Where is Jacobo?” Jacobo Bucaram tweeted a response to Bonilla that included profanity and threat that the cartoonist would have to defend himself.3

C8 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 1.001 3.003

Technical attacks have targeted media websites in recent years, and official accounts have been hacked in the recent past.1 In September 2019, investigative news outlet Periodismo de Investigación was the victim of one that took them offline and may have been related to a report about corruption by government figures. Their website became inaccessible and displayed a phishing alert.2

Accounts of individual users and government institutions in Ecuador are susceptible to hacking. In July 2020, the Instagram accounts of three female journalists were hacked by someone who changed their passwords, deleted their photographs and videos, and uploaded unrelated pictures in their place. The uploaded pictures were the same for all the three accounts.3 No further information about these incidents was known by the end of the coverage period. In August 2019, the Twitter accounts of the Vice Ministry for Export and Investment Promotion (PRO ECUADOR) and the armed forces were hacked. According to the ministry, the PRO ECUADOR account posted content meant to destabilize the Moreno administration.4

Attacks against financial institutions and data-analytics companies have also posed a threat to individuals’ personal information in recent years. In February 2021, it was reported that 80 GB of sensitive information relating to account holders from Ecuadorian bank Banco Pichincha had been stolen.5 An online actor named Hotarus Corp. allegedly requested a ransom of $30 million in bitcoin to keep them from exposing sensitive information about Banco Pichincha’s clients. Despite these reports, the bank denied that its systems had been compromised.6 In September 2019, it was revealed that the majority of Ecuadorians had their personal information exposed on the server of a data-analytics company. The government announced that they would launch an investigation.7 Shortly thereafter, the office of the company, Novaestrat, was raided; the company and its leadership were placed under investigation for infringing on privacy and spreading personal data, as well as to determine how they had procured the data.8 No results from the investigation had been made public as of June 2021.

On Ecuador

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  • Global Freedom Score

    67 100 partly free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    62 100 partly free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Partly Free
  • Networks Restricted

    No
  • Websites Blocked

    No
  • Pro-government Commentators

    No
  • Users Arrested

    Yes