An anti-Internet piracy firm with ties to the government of Ecuador, and its president Rafael Correa, on Friday filed a copyright complaint against a news organization that days earlier exposed potential corruption by the South American nation’s ambassador to the United States.
The company, Barcelona-based Ares Rights, demanded that a website hosting service remove content posted by Plan V, an Ecuadorian news organization that has reported stories embarrassing to, or critical of, the country’s ruling regime.
One recent story focused on Nathalie Cely Suárez, Ecuador’s ambassador to the United States. According to Plan V’s report, a company owned by her mother has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in Ecuadorian government contracts while she occupied prominent positions in that government.
Cely’s relationship with the company could run afoul of Ecuadorian laws against the use of one’s official position to enrich direct family members. Cely vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
That might’ve been the end of it, but just days after the story was published, a Spanish anti-internet piracy firm called Ares Rights went after Plan V.
In a Digital Millennium Copyright Act complaint filed on Friday, Ares Rights claimed ownership of material used in a May story on Ecuador’s abuse of copyright claims through Ares Rights and other firms.
Experts immediately pointed to similar efforts by the same company to muzzle critics of the Ecuadorian government. Adam Steinbaugh, a legal blogger who has covered Ares Rights extensively, called the complaint "abusive, censorious conduct."
At the helm of Ares Rights and a number of other firms involved in these DMCA disputes is Jonathan Palma Ruz, a Spanish national whose name frequently pops up in complaints against Ecuador’s critics.
According to the Friday complaint against Plan V, Ares Rights is the aggrieved party in Plan V’s copyright abuse. But the complaint also lists another company involved in the dispute: Wikipiedra S.L. According to E.U. records, that Spanish company is also run by Palma.
Wikipiedra is tied to another anti-piracy firm, Tenth Man, which boasts on its website, "Our actions get content removed from the web simply and cleanly."
"Slandering and insulting anonymously is widespread on the web," the website declares. "Tenthman has the tools to locate and delete these files."
Palma’s name pops up frequently in stories on DMCA abuse by the Ecuadorian government and anti-piracy firms to which it has ties.
"Despite being in Spain, [Ares Rights] and its CEO are tied to Ecuador’s state-owned and -operated television channel and continues to assert copyright over several Ecuador-related images," Steinbaugh noted last year after Ares Rights attempted to remove documents from the website BuzzFeed that revealed Ecuador’s acquisition of electronic espionage equipment.
Previous efforts to remove content on behalf of clients have targeted critics of the Correa regime large and small, foreign and domestic.
One recent complaint targeted online communications by oil company Chevron, which is engaged in a decades-long legal dispute with environmentalists who alleged massive environmental damages by Texaco, which Chevron acquired in 2001.
Ares Rights’ attempts to remove that content drew criticism from Chevron, but the firm has also come under fire for using DMCA complaints to silence Ecuadorian journalists and political opponents.
Ares Rights filed a complaint in March on behalf of Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa. It sought to remove tweets by a Venezuelan user going by the handle @LucioQuincioC.
The tweets remain, but the photos, allegedly the intellectual property of Ecuador’s president, are no longer available on the social networking site.
@LucioQuincioC is actually Federico Guillermo Medina Ravell, a Venezuelan dissident and cousin of Alberto Federico Ravell, the former director of Venezuelan opposition media outlet Globovision.
Globovision was one of the few Venezuelan news organizations in the country to remain, over the past five years, highly critical of the late president Hugo Chavez, a major Correa ally and leader of the Bolivarion socialist movement of which Correa is now the de facto leader.
Alberto Federico Ravell was forced out of Globovision after Chavez’s government worked to undermine its financing. Meanwhile, Federico Guillermo Medina Ravell had his home raided by Venezuelan intelligence services, reportedly in response to anti-Chavez activity on Twitter.
While Plan V has not been subject to that level of political intimidation, critics of the Correa regime allege that, through Ares Rights, it is attempting to silence or retaliate against them.
In addition to Plan V itself, the government has singled out a partner news organization, the Center for Investigative Journalism in the Americas, and one of its columnists, Ezequiel Vazquez-Ger.
"Instead of answering [the allegations raised by the Plan V report on Ambassador Cely], she tried to distort the conversation, initiating a bunch of attacks towards me and towards Plan V," Vazquez-Ger wrote in an email.
He pointed to a non-bylined editorial in the state-run media outlet El Telegrafo, which accused him and Plan V of advancing foreign, especially American, interests in Ecuador through investigative reporting.
The editorial claimed that Plan V and CIJA serve as mouthpieces for "fugitive from justice" Emilio Palacio. Palacio is a blogger who was forced to flee Ecuador after he and three editors of the newspaper El Universo were sentenced to years in prison for supposedly defaming Correa.
Vazquez-Ger also suspects that hackers have targeted his twitter account. "During the last several days Twitter repeatedly blocked my account for security purposes," he said. "Someone is probably trying to sneak into it."
The government’s reaction, he said, is a testament to Plan V’s and CIJA’s impact. "After the McSquared/Cely reports, Correa is probably realizing the reach and potential that the website has," he wrote.
The mcSQUARED report refers to coverage of the government’s work with a public relations firm hired to attack Chevron.
Reports in the Washington Free Beaconand Bloomberg Businessweekrevealed that mcSQUARED was paying anti-Chevron protesters, and conducting its advocacy in the U.S. without registering as a foreign agent with the Department of Justice, as required by federal law.
The Telegrafo editorial appeared to allude to that case in noting that Vazquez-Ger has done work for the National Endowment for Democracy, which is funded by the U.S. government.
"Because [Vazquez-Ger] was not registered [under the Foreign Agent Registration Act], there is little transparency about his source of funding," declared El Telegrafo.
It was not clear whether the article was alleging foreign funding for his activities in the United States (it provided no evidence to that effect), or simply misunderstanding what the Foreign Agent Registration Act requires.
Despite apparent efforts to blunt the impact of Plan V’s reporting, Steinbaugh does not expect Ares Rights’ efforts will have much of an impact.
"The good news for Plan V—and other targets of Ares Rights—is that Ares Rights always fails," he wrote. "Assuming their goal is to shield from the public eye the withering criticism they’ve endured, that plan will backfire spectacularly, and more attention will be drawn to their abusive, censorious conduct."