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VICE News

World Cup–Crazed Mexico Lets Controversial Reform Laws Take the Sidelines

Who has time to show up to a demonstration against unpopular political reform laws if your country is in the middle of fighting for glory?

by Tim Smyth
Jun 23 2014, 9:15pm

Photo via Mexico City Municipal Government

Who has time to show up to a demonstration against unpopular political reform laws if your country is in the middle of fighting for glory in the World Cup?

That's why activists claim the federal government and its near-majority in Mexico's Congress purposefully scheduled debate on one of President Enrique Pena Nieto's reform packages on the same day as Mexico's debut in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

The discussions on the controversial energy reform bill were halted after opposition politicians walked out.

Another reform package, Pena Nieto's telecommunications bill, had been expected to be discussed and voted on in June, but now those talks are also on hold after criticism from the opposition, a spokesman for Mexico's Senate told VICE News on Monday.

Mexican youth protest "anti-freedom of expression" telecom bill. Read more here.

Photo via Mexico City Municipal Government

Activists accuse lawmakers of distracting tactics this month, railroading through reforms while the country is fixated on football.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened — the 1998 $67 billion bank bailout was passed on December 12, the feast day for the Virgin of Guadalupe and the traditional start of the elaborate Christmas holidays in Mexico.

The impact of the World Cup on the country's political temperature was evident on Saturday night, during a demonstration called against the telecom reform law.

Activists and digital-rights groups say the law could significantly hinder digital rights and the ability for citizens to organize themselves during protests.

Only a few dozen demonstrators showed up. They were outnumbered by locals and tourists visiting the Angel of Independence monument on a central roundabout in the city. Police outnumbered the protesters two to one.

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In contrast, three days of protests in April against the telecom reform law culminated in a 3,000-people-strong protest during heavy rain, cheered on by rush-hour drivers and by people on the top decks of tourist buses. The protests at the time were boisterous.

Placards read “Censor this” with the Facebook “Like” button turned in to a middle finger. Students waved Mexican flags with the green and red portions dyed black, a defiant altering of the national flag in a country with strict laws against it.

“Why not ask us? Why hide? Why not have the debate when people are going to watch?” asked Juan Antonio Guzmán Gómez, a computer engineer, on Saturday night.

He told me he showed up without belonging to any one organization. Most people, in fact, described themselves only as “concerned citizens.”

“This is a step backward. A generation died in 1968 and 1971 for what we’re losing today,” Guzman continued, referring to the years of massacres of student demonstrators by state forces in Mexico. “[The telecom reform] is an attack on our freedom of expression. The internet is the only avenue we have left, and they want to shut it.”

On the surface, the Ley Federal de Telecommunicaciones y Radiodifusión says it seeks greater internet coverage in a country where in 2012 only 40 percent of the population had access to the net, and only about 20 percent had access in their home, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography.

But the proposed law would limit net access where "public safety" is threatened, at the government's discretion.

Activists say the law opens the possibility of a host of potential abuses on the part of the government.

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The proposed law says nothing about an independent monitoring committee, so the authorities would not be answerable to anyone when it comes to data-gathering, and can cut off access to both telephones and internet where it is deemed necessary.

The president may propose to expand the internet, but in this context it would also mean widening the scope of state monitoring online, digital-rights groups claim.

The proposed law says signals can be blocked “from events and places of significance to national security.”

The authorities can drop small, localized "silent zones" over protests to prevent them from organizing in real-time.

Perhaps even in worse, the proposed law leaves space for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to open a "fast lane" for internet at higher prices to those who could pay for it, and leave the rest of the population in a lower gear.

Outside the Senate, as demonstrators gave rousing speeches, an 18-year-old kid dressed as a Transformer hands the microphone over to another “concerned citizen,” Saúl Díaz. “There aren’t many of us here,” he said to the group. “But go to the Metro. Ask anyone if they agree with what’s happening.”

Citizens rushing along underground on the subway might agree with Diaz and his fellow protesters' position, especially in left-leaning Mexico City.

Or, simply because this is World Cup season, they may have no idea "what's happening" with the future of their internet access in Mexico.