By Idec – Brazilian Institute for Consumer Protection

Building bridges takes time, is tiring and expensive – but it pays off. This is one of the many learnings that we will carry with Idec after the almost two years project “Building bridges between the digital rights and consumer protection communities in Latin America”.

The idea for this initiative was born out of our strong involvement in these two communities – digital rights and consumer protection. This is because, over time, we realized that they are two communities with many strengths, but that still do not dialogue with each other. On the one hand, we have the digital rights community, which is very aware to the process of public and private services digitization and has a well-established regional articulation. On the other hand, we have consumer protection organizations, who have been working since the 80s and 90s, acting in different ways, whether in political incidence, awareness campaigns or strategic litigation, but who, for now, know little about these new privacy and data protection issues.

Building bridges during the pandemic

Strengthening ties between groups that are not alike is an even more complicated task in a pandemic period, as was our case. In this way, we had to give up a large face-to-face and Latin American meeting, which forced us to look for viable alternatives for this bridge-building challenge.

So we started our project with a series of remote interviews with members of digital rights organizations and with representatives from consumer protection organizations from twelve countries in the region, from Mexico to Chile. From this initial stage, it was possible to collect a considerable amount of data and information that helped us drawing an important profile from both communities.

A quick comparative analysis between the two communities showed us a large generational gap and a significant financial disparity. For example, the consumer protection community leadership is predominantly formed by women, who had founded the organizations and have worked in them for decades, where they also helped in the national consumer protection laws enactment – as was Idec’s case. Meanwhile, in the digital rights community, there are younger members who have also founded their own organizations, in which they have been working for less than a decade.

In our conversations with activists from both communities, we decided to investigate how entities relate to debates on technology and society. This was an important step to pay attention to the complex regulatory scenario in the region, in which there are countries where data protection is already a fundamental right, while others do not even have rules to deal with data processing. Other topics such as competition law and telecommunications services also emerged in the conversations as topics of interest to organizations, since discussions about massive data processing are no longer a mere matter of data protection and privacy.

Since one of the initial objectives of our project was also to map national regulatory frameworks and paradigmatic cases, we built, within the project scope, an interactive map containing information on authorities and legislation in many countries on data protection, consumer protection, competition law and telecommunications law. We believe that this legal atlas, combined with a library of paradigmatic local cases, will be a privileged space that will provide an important knowledge dissemination about the interface between consumer law and data protection in Latin America.

Rolling up the sleeves 

In addition to this huge stage of data collection, we also act, in practice, with political incidence actions. Having already presented our project to organizations in the region, as well as talking in detail with them, we had the first articulation opportunity when WhatsApp, the most used messaging application in Latin America and in the world, started sending out notifications in early January 2021 about changes that would be implemented to its terms of use and privacy policy. In this sense, several organizations from both communities signed a  public manifestation addressed to Facebook and local authorities requesting a series of measures regarding WhatsApp’s new privacy policy so that users had their rights respected.

At the end of the same year, we organized an event to establish a dialogue between Latin American civil society, in which we debated a data protection perspective that articulated the experiences, the work and expertise from digital rights communities and consumer protection in Latin America. In this space, we had the opportunity to address the  biometric technologies spread and its effects on consumers and, also discuss the  personal data protection from telecommunications services users.

We are not alone 

Other interesting moments from the project articulation emerged when we discovered similar initiatives around the world. We noticed that other organizations were also aware of the fact that more robust collaboration between different groups is urgently needed to deal with the advancement of public and private services that violate citizens’ right to data protection.

For example, in 2021, The Engine Room conducted a  research project exploring cross-sector collaboration between social justice communities and digital rights communities during the pandemic. We made a series of contributions to this final research report , sharing experiences and lessons learned that we had throughout our own project. We also strengthen ties with Internews’ “Advocating for Data Accountability, Protection, and Transparency” (ADAPT) project, what helped us focus on challenges faced by Latin American regulators, in addition to providing us spaces to discuss how activists can work not only with data protection authorities, but also with competition and consumer rights regulatory bodies.

Let’s go together

After all these stimulating actions, conversations and partnerships, we realize that there is still a long way to go. Financial, generational and technical asymmetries are still striking and hinder ongoing involvement between communities. After the painful first stage of the pandemic, both digital rights and consumer rights are areas that are receiving more attention from citizens due to the public services, work and education migration to the digital environment., therefore, we are confident that these first steps taken in our project will be essential for building more solid and lasting bridges, which will lead to concrete and successful actions, as it is already happening.