A few weeks ago, the New York Times published a piece covering a new report launched by OECD calling member-countries to “promote and protect the global free flow of information”. The article lists three BRIC-members, China, India and Russia, as examples of countries taking actions harmful to online freedom. One BRIC member is missing from the list: Brazil. Despite hiccups, Brazil has been taking a strong position for protecting freedom and other civil rights online. Why is that?
One reason is that Brazil is a rather young democracy. From 1964 to 1985 the country was governed by a military regime, which imposed strict censorship rules. Major artists, newspapers, and tv networks had to submit their activities to prior approval by a censorship board. When democracy was reestablished in 1986, censorship was eliminated, but the trauma of 20 years of repression had been painfully imprinted in the Brazilian society. This trauma has made Brazil very sensitive to new threats of censorship, in its many forms.
Another landmark was a decision taken by the country's Supreme Court in 2009. The court struck down the Press Law, adopted in 1967 by the military government (the same law that had established censorship). When the country was re-democratized, the censorship articles were revoked. Nonetheless, other parts regulating libel, defamation and the “right of reply” survived. The court decided to strike everything down (in spite of a heated debate claiming that the remaining articles were reasonable), stating the law was incompatible with the freedom of expression clause of the Brazilian constitution.
Another factor is that president Dilma Rousseff has been taking a public stance in favor of freedom of expression. It makes sense. In the 1960s, she was imprisoned and tortured during the military regime for participating in a dissident group. Unswervingly, she declared at a recent human rights conference that she “prefers the noise of the press to the silence of the dictatorship”.
Moreover, Brazil has a vigorous civil society, which emerged especially with the country’s new democratic constitution in 1988. Many civil society organizations are concerned with online freedom issues, including consumer associations, artists groups, newspapers and journalists associations, NGOs for education, free and open source software organizations, the academia, lawyers and judges associations, to name a few. Their claims have been taken into account by the political system. Government and Congress in Brazil remain permeable to the civil society. Even if lobbying and special interests do exist and exercise strong influence, it is rather difficult for politicians to save face for policies flagrantly against the public interest.
The strength of civil society reinforced Brazil’s commitment to internet freedom and also led to concrete policy-making. One example is the Marco Civil ("Civil Rights Framework for the Internet”), a draft bill seeking to protect civil rights online, such as freedom of expression and privacy, and to create balanced rules for the liability of internet intermediaries.
The bill is the result of a two-year online debate open to the public at-large. The process was put together by the Ministry of Justice and the Center for Technology & Society, a research center in Rio de Janeiro (full disclosure – I am the director of the Center for Technology & Society, and was involved in the Marco Civil process). The bill was sent to Congress by the Federal government in 2011, with co-sponsorship of five Ministries. Marco Civil has become a well-known issue in the Brazilian public sphere, and it has gathered strong public support. Approval is expected sometime in 2012.
Internationally, some view Marco Civil as an alternative approach to SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), the bill currently in discussion in Congress in the US, under strong criticism. While SOPA tilts the balance of the law in the direction of expedite enforcement, by-passing the judiciary in favor of a private notice-and-takedown system, Marco Civil supports a more balanced approach. It seeks to translate the principles established by the Brazilian Constitution into online practices, paying especial attention to due process, freedom of expression, and the protection of an environment favorable to innovation. Because of that, some also view Marco Civil as a counterpoint to ACTA, the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, criticized for potentially harming fundamental rights.
Of course the situation in Brazil is not all roses. The Brazilian Ministry of Culture has changed its policies in the beginning of 2011. Under the guidance of the new Minister Ana de Hollanda (claimed to have close ties to the controversial copyright collecting society in Brazil - ECAD - which is currently under investigation for fraud by by a special Congressional Inquiry Commission) has been trying to introduce legislation in Congress for creating a private systems for removing online content, inspired in part by the DMCA. This effort and other actions of the Ministry have raised vast waves of criticism, both by civil society and also by many sectors in the government´s party.
These hiccups, nevertheless, do not change the fact that, for now, Brazil seems to be committed to protect internet freedom against all odds. That is a good way of taking the recommendation of the OECD seriously, and also of setting a good example for the BRIC colleagues.