Since 2013, Brazil and Germany have co-sponsored two resolutions on digital privacy at the UN General Assembly, which could become the base for future global regulation of the Internet. Digital activists often hold up the Marco Civil, Brazil’s domestic framework for the Web, as an international benchmark for protecting civil liberties. So how did a developing country become a world leader in setting human rights standards for advanced information technology?
Part of the answer lies in the NSA spy scandal. Glenn Greenwald, the US journalist who presented whistleblower Edward Snowden to the world, is married to a Brazilian, lives in Rio de Janeiro and speaks fluent Portuguese. His work also exposed how Brazil was one of the main targets of US surveillance and for a time he was a frequent guest on prime time TV shows, enlightening audiences on how espionage works. The political impact was huge and President Dilma Rousseff even cancelled a long-awaited state trip to the US. Brazil’s National Congress held public hearings on how the country could protect itself.
At the time, Brazil was in the final stages of a four-year discussion on its Marco Civil da Internet, an innovative law drafted in collaboration with civil society organizations that establishes Web access as a human right, protects Internet neutrality (providers have to charge the same for all types of content) and ensures civil and political freedoms such as free speech. The law also deals with privacy issues and stipulates that authorities need a judicial warrant to obtain personal data from users. Although there are some lacunae – for example, Brazil still does not have a specific law on the protection of personal data – the framework has given the government a solid base to discuss global governance of the Internet.
Apart from Glenn Greenwald, Brazil’s dynamic digital rights movements were a crucial factor. Brazilians love and care about the Internet. An Amnesty International poll shows that Brazil and Germany are the two countries most concerned with Internet privacy. In these countries, two out of three citizens worry about government surveillance (especially from US spy agencies) of their digital activities. Half of Brazil’s population of 200 million has access to the Internet and this number is growing fast. Of Brazilians who are already online, 79% are fond of social networks. After the US, Brazil has the biggest presence on Facebook and Twitter.
The fact that the Internet is such an important part of daily life also has political consequences. The big demonstrations that have swept the country over the past few years were largely organized online. Instead of parties or trade unions, increasingly it is social networks that are playing an important role to counteract the power of the big conservative media corporations. During demos, they also provide a platform for denouncing violence against protesters.
Moreover, despite Brazil’s leading international standing regarding regulation of the Internet, digital activists still have many concerns. They condemn illegal surveillance by the police and also by Brazil’s intelligence agency. They are also worried about the presence of extremist groups on the Web and hate speech and are concerned about how to deal with these without jeopardizing freedom of expression. These issues are more divisive than the NSA scandal and pose a challenge for the Brazilian government and civil society organizations.
Maurício Santoro is a Political scientist and assistant professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. He wrote the book “Modern Dictatorship” as well as many articles and scientific publications published in Brazil and abroad. In addition to his presence on Twitter, he also writes a column for the online paper “Brasil Post.”