Newspaper article International New York Times

Brazil's Digital Backlash

Newspaper article International New York Times

Brazil's Digital Backlash

Article excerpt

A government that once championed Internet freedom now seems more interested in surveillance and censorship.

A Sao Paulo judge sent shock waves across Brazil last month with a ruling that required Brazilian telecommunications operators to block the use of the instant messaging platform WhatsApp for 48 hours. Less than 13 hours later, another Sao Paulo judge reversed the decision, restoring service. But in the meantime, as many as 100 million Brazilians had been seriously inconvenienced, and civil libertarians around the world looked on with dismay.

Brazilians take their social media very seriously. The country has one of the fastest growing populations of Internet users in the world. Online tools like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are used not only to express opinions; they are an affordable alternative to exorbitantly priced Brazilian telecom providers. One recent study in Brazil found that WhatsApp was used by 93 percent of those surveyed who had Internet access.

The official reason for the judge's decision to suspend WhatsApp was because its parent company, Facebook, refused to comply with requests to provide personal information and communications records to prosecutors in an investigation into organized crime and drug trafficking. This is not the first time that the Brazilian authorities have jousted with tech companies. Notwithstanding the seriousness of the crimes being investigated, the judge's action was reckless and represents a potentially longer-term threat to the freedoms of Brazilians.

The ruling was not entirely out of the blue. Brazil's Congress has been considering legislation that would roll back key provisions of the country's freshly minted digital bill of rights, known as the Marco Civil da Internet, which was passed in 2014. The new proposal is expected to make it easier for prosecutors to access citizens' personal information without the nuisance of having to obtain a court order.

Described by critics as "the big spy bill," it would require Brazilians to register personal details like their home address, telephone number and other private information when accessing websites. It would also expose citizens to possible charges of libel for comments made on social media. At a time when political dissent is vigorous, this bill would surely chill debate.

A key architect of the spy bill is the president of Brazil's lower house of Congress, Eduardo Cunha. Mr. Cunha was a leading opponent of the Marco Civil and teamed up with the Congress's evangelical caucus to take it down. Complicating matters, Mr. Cunha is under federal police investigation for corruption and taking bribes, charges he vehemently denies. That aside, groups like the Center for Technology and Society, a think tank based at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas law school, argue that the proposed legislation is probably unconstitutional. …

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