Politics and the pressSaturday, March 29, 2014
Brazil goes neutral
For The Herald
It is commonplace in Argentina’s political and economic circles to compare the country’s reality with neighbouring countries, typically Brazil, Chile or Uruguay. These countries, historically brothers and rivals for Argentina, are often portrayed as more moderate, serious and predictable. More often than not, the opinions are not very well grounded.
This week, however, Brazil did deliver some impressive news and taught a lesson to the region — and arguably the world. Its Lower House approved a sort of Bill of Rights for the country’s Internet users. The Marco Civil da Internet, as the bill is known, now has to move on to the Brazilian Senate. While it substantially changes the terms of engagement between users and Internet firms, the bill also has a geopolitical flavour to it.
Just over two months before the start of the Soccer World Cup, President Dilma Rousseff scored a brownie point in her quest to show her country stands on the side of the independent emerging powers in an increasingly multi-lateral international arena. Debate over the Marco Civil bill dates back to 2009 and 2010, when hundreds of Brazilians engaged in public hearings and debates to discuss the bill.
The draft text was then frozen in Parliament until the Edward Snowden’s leaks revealed that the Brazilian head of State was one of the world leaders the US National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on. The ruling Workers’ Party then got a renewed drive to push for the bill in line with Rousseff’s reaction to the spying.
The Brazilian President wanted to create a sort of Internet shield to protect the country’s online data from foreign poachers by forcing foreign Web companies to store their data locally. Rousseff’s government had to drop this point in order to save the vote, as opponents argued that it would raise the costs of Web services in Brazil. The bill did say, however, that companies such as Google and Facebook are subject to Brazilian laws and courts in cases involving information about Brazilians, regardless whether the data was stored abroad.
The Marco Civil has provisions regarding data retention limits, the liability of service provider for content published by users and, most importantly, the neutrality of the net.
Net neutrality has become a battlefield at a global level. It means that all data should be treated equally when sent through the net. Service providers argue that net neutrality makes the system too rigid and prevents companies from offering their users tailor-made packages. Some dozen countries have already passed legislation enshrining net neutrality.
Critics of the Argentine government’s communications policy would be right to argue that by the same time (2009) Brazil began to debate its new “Internet Constitution,” local authorities were fighting over a Media Act that sought to regulate 20th rather than 21st Century media (i.e. airwaves and cable television instead of the Internet).
Stuck in legal greys, Argentine judges have delivered contradictory rulings over the last years regarding the rights and obligations of Web users and Internet companies. There is often a freedom of expression angle to them. In the latest, made public this week, an appeals court overturned a ruling that had ordered a blog critical of the newspaper Clarín to be banned on allegations that it was infringing the daily’s brand. The blog by journalist Matías Castañeda was launched in the heat of the government’s battle over the 2009 Media Act with Grupo Clarín.
The Brazilian debate comes at a time Internet governance is climbing on the international community’s agenda. The Internet’s infrastructure is largely in the hands of the United States and, as Washington sheds credibility to the tune of the Snowden revelations, other nations and civil right activists increasingly call for a new type of supranational overseeing of the web.
This month, the US Department of Commerce announced plans to give up control of the organization in charge of handing out domain names. The California-based non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) works under the supervision of the Department. Lawrence E. Strickling, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, said in a statement that, “We look forward to ICANN convening stakeholders across the global Internet community to craft an appropriate transition plan.” The “global Internet community” is ultimately the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
His comments triggered a debate in the US on whether the Obama administration should trust the US’ greatest invention of the second half of the 20th century, the Internet, to organizations like the ITU, where each country has one vote. The timing of the announcement is intrinsically associated with the NSA spying scandal, a PR disaster for the US administration only comparable to the publication by WikiLeaks in 2010 of over a quarter of a million classified State Department cables. But some US leaders are not sure handing over the web is the right thing to do and the debate is raging. “What is the global Internet community that Obama wants to turn the Internet over to?” tweeted former House speaker Newt Gingrich upon hearing the news. “This risks foreign dictatorships defining the Internet.” He was surely not talking about Brazil.