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Brazilian Judge Shuts Down WhatsApp

Brazil’s Congress Wants To Shut Down The Social Web Next
Julie Ruvolo 17 December 2015

A judge in Sao Paulo has ordered WhatsApp to shut down for 48 hours, starting at 9pm Eastern tonight.

WhatsApp is the single most used app in Brazil, with about 93 million users, or 93% of the country’s internet population. It’s a particularly useful service for Brazil’s youth and poor, many who cannot afford to pay the most expensive plans on the planet.

Brazilian telco’s have been lobbying for months to convince the government that WhatsApp’s voice service is unregulated and illegal (not entirely unlike the taxi industry’s posture on Uber), and have publicly blamed the “WhatsApp effect” for driving millions of Brazilians to abandon their cell phone lines.

A WhatsApp shut-down would be akin to taking half the country off the electricity grid because of an industry squabble over the impending threat of solar power.

It’s a particularly baffling move when you consider that Brazil is the Social Media Capital of the Universe: Brazilians are the #2 or #3 audience on every major global social platform, and on a per-user basis, Brazilians spend almost double the time on social media as Americans.

But a temporary WhatsApp shutdown is not even close to the craziest thing happening with the Brazilian internet right now.

If Brazil’s conservative Congress gets its way, they’re going to take down the entire social web as we know it, with bills circulating through the legislature to criminalize posting social media content and to allow the government to spy on its citizens.

It’s an about-face from last year, when President Dilma Rousseff approved Marco Civil, a groundbreaking Internet “Bill of Rights”, as a response to the Snowden revelations that the NSA was spying on Brazil. The landmark bill, Brazil’s first internet legislation, protects net neutrality, user privacy and freedom of speech.

Since then, Brazil’s economy has spiraled into crisis, triggered in large part by a wide-reaching corruption scandal at the state-owned Petrobras oil behemoth that is investigating heads of Brazil’s biggest construction firms, some 50 politicians who are currently in office, and even ex-President Lula.

Meanwhile, Dilma’s approval rating has stagnated in the single digits, and many are calling for her impeachment, including Eduardo Cunha, Brazil’s equivalent of the Speaker of the House. Cunha is under investigation himself for corruption and accused of laundering millions of dollars in a scandal involving the Brazilian oil company Petrobras.

Cunha, a former telco lobbyist, was one of the biggest opponents of Marco Civil (particularly its net neutrality clause) before the legislation made its way to Dilma’s desk and into law.

But a year later, he controls a Congress dominated by evangelical extremists and military dictatorship apologists, and is authoring or advocating on behalf of a slate of proposed laws that would not only dismantle Marco Civil’s provisions for consumer privacy and freedom of expression, but would also effectively criminalize the use of social media.

PL 215/15, which opponents are nicknaming the Big Spy (“O Espião”), is a surveillance law that would require Brazilians to enter theirtax ID, home address and phone number to access any website or app on the internet, and require companies like Facebook and Google to store that information for up to three years and provide access to police with a court order. An earlier draft said “competent authorities” could request the data without a court order.

Another part of the law, authored by Cunha, would allow politicians to censor social media practically at will.

It’s a twist on the European Union’s “right to be forgotten” legislation, which establishes a process for private citizens (but not public figures) to request some forms of sensitive content from their past to be de-indexed from search results (but not removed from the web).

The version Cunha authored would allow Brazilian politicians to not just request content they found defamatory, injurious, or simply out of date to be de-indexed, but actually order it to be taken down from the web (and with a court order, police could have the home address and tax ID of the person who published it on, say, Facebook).

Congress’ lower house approved PEC 215 in October. Now it goes to a Congressional vote before it would move on to the Senate, and ultimately Dilma’s vote.

“This is a very good example of how Congress thinks about the internet,” says Ronaldo Lemos, one of the instigators of Marco Civil, and current director of the Internet Technology Society in Rio de Janeiro. “All this effort and energy to criminalize the internet. Many politicians in Brazil feel that the internet is only used to say bad things about them. They hate the internet. It’s a threat.”

Lemos says the proposed legislation is the biggest threat to freedom of expression Brazil has seen in decades.

For those unfamiliar with Brazilian politics, free speech is but one of a rainbow of civil rights under Cunha’s attack.

This year alone he’s also pushed forward legislation for a “gay cure”; a law that allows 16 year-olds to be tried as adults in the criminal system; another one that bans the day-after pill and restricts rape victims’ access to abortion; and one called PEC 215 — not to be confused with PL 215 — that removes Indigenous Brazilians’ constitutional right to their land. And gives it to Congress.

It’s also worth noting that Cunha is not the only one behind the anti-internet legislation, and that the aforementioned bills are not the only ones on the table — or even the worst.

Many politicians in Brazil feel that the internet is only used to say bad things about them. They hate the internet. It’s a threat.
Ronaldo Lemos, director of the Internet Technology Society

Among the other anti-internet bills that have been introduced within a year of Marco Civil’s passing — all authored by members of Congress’s evangelical bloc — is PL 1676, which may be voted on this week.

PL 1676 would make it a crime punishable by up to two years in jail for anyone to film, photograph or capture the voice of a person without their express authorization (making even selfies potentially criminal, if someone shows up in the background of the photo). The penalty jumps to up to six years if the footage is posted on the internet.

There’s more: PL 1547 and PL 1589, addendums to PL 215, would increase the penalty for cases of libel, slander and defamation on the web.

PL 2390 would create a centralized database of Brazilian internet users as a means to prohibit children and adolescents from accessing inappropriate content, but could just as easily be used to keep Brazilian youth — the fastest-growing and most active segment of internet users — from accessing major social platforms like YouTube and Twitter.

What’s at stake here is freedom of expression and the right to privacy in what may soon be the biggest social media market on the planet.

With less than half the number of Americans online, Brazil is already the #2 or #3 player behind the US on every major social platform globally — Facebook, Google, Twitter, you name it. And there are still another 100 million Brazilians who have not come online yet, including wide swaths of the youth, poor and rural demographics. It is entirely possible that in the next ten years Brazil will have the largest internet audience on the planet in terms of social media consumption, and that Millennial Brazilians will be the most socially active population on the planet.

What’s at stake here is freedom of expression and the right to privacy in what may soon be the biggest social media market on the planet.

To get a sense of just how disruptive internet adoption is in Brazil — and how big of a threat it is to the established order — consider that millennials are the only Brazilians alive today who have never lived under a military dictatorship (Brazil had two of them over the 20th century, the last one ending in 1985).

And as they come online, they are increasingly using the social web as a tool to speak out and organize. They used Facebook Events to bring millions to the streets in Brazil’s historic protests in 2013 ahead of the World Cup.

Theycollaboratively drafted their own Marco Civil legislation, crowdsourcing 70% of the bill’s final text online. Independent media collectives like Midia Ninja and Papo Reto are attracting global attention for reporting on issues like rampant police violence against poor black youth.

In this context, the proposed anti-internet legislation is a direct reaction to this emerging digital empowerment, and a multi-pronged attack on social media — restricting access for Brazil’s poor and youth demographics to access the internet, criminalizing the posting of practically all video, photo and audio content, and censoring voices out of favor with the current government.

Industry experts agree that at least some combination of these proposed laws is likely to pass Congress. Eventually, however, the bills will stop at President Dilma’s desk.

Dilma pushed for Marco Civil last year, and her party has historically imposed these kinds of restrictions — although with the impending impeachment battle, Dilma’s days may be numbered. Politicians aside, we can look forward to seeing how Brazil’s digital generation decides to rally in support of the open web.

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