Internet Censorship Update – Brazil

by Adam Gill

There’s a lot of talk going on about whether Brazil is going for all-out censorship. The newly encrypted WhatsApp service was blocked again this year, over the same data issues that got the Facebook vice president arrested. The government is now looking at a new law that contains provisions for site blocking and takes back some freedoms just granted in the 2014 digital bill of rights. Is Brazil really headed down the dark road of censorship?

Social Media Crackdowns

In December last year, WhatsApp was blocked in Brazil for about 12 hours because the messaging service did not comply with an order issued in July by a criminal court. In March, a Facebook executive was arrested and detained on the same premise, this time specifically for not releasing data that was requested in conjunction with a drug trafficking investigation. This month, Facebook-owned WhatsApp was blocked again for not releasing data in that same drug investigation.

Sergipe Judge Marcel Montalvao issued an order to phone companies to block WhatsApp last Monday after the messaging service failed to give them the data that they were requesting. Under the threat of paying a daily fine of the equivalent of 143,000 US dollars, the Brazilian telecoms complied. The block was ordered to run for 72 hours, a day more than the previously ordered 48-hour block.

WhatsApp has responded to the courts’ requests by explaining that it does not have the data that they are asking for. Especially now that the service has implemented end-to-end encryption, they no longer have access to the message text of users. But the judge ordered the block anyway, preventing access to Brazil’s over 100 million WhatsApp users. Many are still questioning whether the courts are even allowed to issue such blocking orders since these orders seem to step all over the rights granted by the Marco Civil.

Pro-Censorship Law in the Works

A couple of weeks after the December WhatsApp block, the Brazilian government began working on new legislation concerning Internet use. The bills call for user registration when accessing websites, forcing them to provide their names, tax identification, and home addresses. The bills also call for powers to impose censorship on social media platforms and increased fines for insulting content under their defamation law.

The Marco Civil – Brazil’s Civil Rights Framework, a.k.a their digital bill of rights – was passed in 2014 to grant Internet users in Brazil the freedom of speech, communication and thought, the protection of privacy and personal data, the maintenance of the neutrality of the Web, and other rights. The new legislation will impose on Internet freedoms, going in a reverse direction from the Marco Civil, which is already controversial because it imposes data retention, government access, and the creation of the questionable special courts for defamation.

The collective legislation, called the Big Spy Bill by Brazilian netizens, is the baby of Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the lower house. He says the bill seeks to penalize those who commit “honor crimes” on social media, but it also seeks to force other websites to keep logs of their users’ data for as long as 3 years (contrary to the Marco Civil’s 6-month policy). Access to the data by government authorities is maintained in the bill, which critics say is just a way for corrupt politicians who are facing criticism to get back at anyone who calls them out. There is a lot of alleged corruption going on in Brazil, so censoring criticism and punishing people who speak out is a good way to silence them, as many countries like China have learned.

The proposed legislation is sad news for a country that has so far enjoyed the open Internet. The Marco Civil was previously criticized for the unconstitutionality of some of its provisions, but was let go as a good start to digital rights and freedoms. This Big Spy Bill, however, is two steps back from that. It equates to the first real law imposing censorship on the people.

One piece of good news regarding the bill is that it has been modified to exclude instant messaging services from the site-blocking provision. The law will still apply to email providers and foreign websites, however – even those without representation in Brazil. The Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry on Cybercrime supports the bill that will make excessive site blocking legal, forcing ISPs to block foreign websites that allow the posting of content that violates Brazilian law. This complicates matters for privacy advocates since that law is already controversial in its definition of defamation.

The fight continues against this censorship bill posing as a cybercrime bill, and Internet users can join in by signing the petition at https://act.eff.org/action/fight-back-against-brazil-s-draconian-new-cybercrime-bills.

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