The president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, used millions of dollars from his country's intelligence budget to hire a foreign company to remove a documentary and other information critical of him or his wife from the internet, leaked documents show.
The records, seen by BuzzFeed News, show that at least one contract, for just under $4.7 million, was signed with a Mexican company that then successfully removed material from YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, and Dailymotion.
Videos removed by the company, which filed weekly reports on successful deletions, included a critical documentary by filmmaker Santiago Villa, an electoral broadcast from a rival accusing Correa of behaving like a dictator, a video from a former aide to Correa's wife alleging persecution, and a report of a jailbreak from Ecuador's highest-security prison.
The new information adds to mounting international concern about censorship and press freedom under Correa. It also raises questions as to whether the Ecuadorian intelligence agency's use of contractors to monitor and remove criticisms violates free expression and privacy protections in the country's constitution.
Earlier this month the last remaining free expression charity in Ecuador was ordered by the government to close down, despite recording more than 600 attacks against journalists in four years. Amnesty International at the time accused Correa, who has led Ecuador since 2007, of restricting "core human rights of freedoms of assembly, association and expression in Ecuador".
The country, which has provided asylum in its London embassy to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange since 2012, has also been criticised for its surveillance practices, including a bulk system to intercept and potentially modify text messages.
The latest leaked documents seen by BuzzFeed date from 2012 and 2013 and relate to a $4.69 million contract between Senain, Ecuador's intelligence agency, and an obscure company based in Mexico called "Emerging MC de Mexico S.A. de C.V."
The contract requires the company to "predict, anticipate and eliminate" material on social networks if they satisfy any of a broad range of criteria. These include "damage or may damage the integrity of persons, public or private institutions", "promote or incite violence or acts contrary to the public welfare and morality", "represent a plagiarism of identity", and "threats, identity theft, defamation, slander and insults".
Emerging MC was also required to include means to send advice on "proper" use of online networks by mass SMS or email.
The document cache also included a payment schedule – $120,000 on signature, followed by bimonthly payments of $200,000 – and an invoice for the first of these payments, marked as payable by the Ministry of National Intelligence.
A separate letter addressed directly to Emerging MC also instructs the company to protect the image of Correa's wife, Belgian-born first lady Anne Malherbe.
"As owner of my own image with exclusive rights that the law gives me," the letter, written in Spanish, reads, "I request Emerging MC Mexico SA de CV and related companies to remove any audiovisual content that appears both in traditional media and digital."
The letter permits the company to use "means at its disposal" to remove content, short of going to court. The letter, dated March 2013, bears the signature of Malherbe herself.
BuzzFeed has also seen examples of the reports sent Emerging MC on their activities under the contract. The documents, titled "Daily Reports", appear with the name and logo "eye watch", a registered trademark of Emerging MC.
Most pages of the report detail a specific video and details of when and on what site the video was posted. The final column of each entry details whether the video has been "eliminated", coloured green, or is "pending", highlighted in red.
The overwhelming majority of the entries listed in the document are shaded green.
The daily report seen by BuzzFeed is focused on six videos: the critical documentary by Santiago Villa, Portrait of a Father of the Country; an election broadcast titled "The Puppets of the Dictator"; an interview with Diego Lenin Peñaherrera, a former aide of Anne Malherbe; two further political campaign videos criticising the president; and a report of the escape of 19 prisoners from a maximum security prison in Ecuador.
The document also tracks images to be eliminated, with only a sole entry on this day's report: a Facebook photo. In the "project" field lies the name "Anne", while the URL suggests the photo is of Anne Malherbe. While the photo was then listed as "pending" – meaning it was still online at the time – the link no longer works.
Attempting to visit the YouTube, Vimeo, and Dailymotion links cited as "eliminated" in the report results in a variety of error messages. Some are blandly uninformative: "This video is unavailable. Sorry about that."
Others, however, reveal the means used to remove the critical content, which generally appears to have been done through the DMCA – the Digital Millennium Copyright Act – a controversial US law used to expedite removals of content that violates intellectual property rights.
Most of the removal requests appear to have been subcontracted to a company called Ares Rights, an obscure rights management service based in Spain. Several of the YouTube videos state: "This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Ares Rights.""
A Vimeo post states that "Vimeo has removed or disabled access to the following material as a result of a third-party notification by Rafael Correa Image Rights", while the Dailymotion pages just say: "We can't find the page you're looking for."
Ares Rights has previously been suspected of removing videos on behalf of Correa in a post produced by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, though neither the company nor the Ecuadorian government would confirm the nature of any relationship between the two – a relationship now corroborated by the new document cache.
Ares Rights' activities first came to public attention in 2013, when the company was involved in pressuring Scribd and Dropbox to remove leaked Senain documents connected to a BuzzFeed story on Ecuador's surveillance practices. Dropbox later reinstated the documents.
Google, which owns YouTube, declined to comment on specific videos, but said it was aware of the censorship risks of the DMCA.
"Unfortunately, there is potential for copyright infringement allegations to be made in furtherance of censorship," said a spokesperson. "Google is committed to ensuring that, even as we battle piracy online, we detect and reject invalid takedown requests."
Vimeo said it had no reason to suspect any takedown notices from Ares Rights were problematic.
"We recognize that the DMCA process can be abused, which is why we (1) warn potential claimants that the DMCA imposes liability on those who make material misrepresentations in their takedown notices; and (2) inform users of their right to challenge a takedown notice," the company said in a statement.
"A user who believes that his or her video has been unlawfully removed should file a counter-notification to dispute the takedown notice. To provide transparency, Vimeo also publishes DMCA takedown information on ChillingEffects.org.
"Regarding Ares Rights, we can confirm that we have received DMCA notices from this entity in the past. At this time, we have no reason to believe that Ares Rights has filed invalid or misleading DMCA notices with respect to any of the videos that have been removed at its request."
Requests for comment to Facebook and Dailymotion were not returned by the time of publication.
A request for comment to Ares Rights was also not returned by the time of publication.
BuzzFeed News contacted Ecuador's government on 17 September through its London embassy with a detailed account of the information contained in this article, in Spanish, offering an opportunity to address any inaccuracies in the information or to provide any comment.
At the time of publication, more than five full business days later, there has been no response from the Ecuadorian government.
• The WikiLeaks Forum has been curating a collection of documents relating to the activities of SENAIN, which is available online here.
James Ball is a special correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London. PGP: here
Contact James Ball at James.Ball@buzzfeed.com.
Paul Hamilos is the world features editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Paul Hamilos at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.