Platforms bring out their artillery to stop regulation in Brazil

12 minutes
Platforms bring out their artillery to stop regulation in Brazil

Last week, Google's search engine looked different in Brazil. It was not a glitch or a doodle, but a warning against a project to regulate digital platforms in that country. Under the search bar, some users found two alarming messages that also directed to company blogs: "The fake news bill may increase confusion about what is true or false in Brazil" and "The fake newsbillmay make your Internet worse".

Google's offensive, which has been joined by other digital platforms such as Telegram and Meta, refers to Bill 2630, a regulatory initiative that despite the nickname it has been given in the public discussion - fake news -goes far beyond the fight against online disinformation.

The bill, the first version of which was approved by the Senate in 2020, seeks to oblige digital platforms to present transparency duties, advance risk assessments on their activities and provide guarantees to online due process. According to the Direitos Na Rede coalition, which brings together more than fifty organizations in defense of digital rights in Brazil, the bill - now in the hands of the Chamber of Deputies - aims to give more power to users, who will have sufficient information and resources to defend their freedom of expression online in case they are sanctioned.

The discussion on the responsibility of the platforms increased in Brazil after the events of January 8, when opposition protesters, coordinated through social media, invaded the Congress headquarters and other state buildings in Brasilia alleging fraud in the last presidential elections.

The project involves altering the Civil Internet Framework, which currently only holds platforms liable for third-party content in the case of non-consensual nudity and copyright infringement. According to the document, the general immunity that companies have should also be exempted when it comes to other content, such as that related to terrorism, racial discrimination or that which undermines the democratic state, on which platforms would have a "duty of care". In the event that companies systematically breach this duty, they could face fines.

On the way to its approval, the project has undergone substantial changes. In a previous version, the text provided for the creation of a body in charge of supervising the obligations and applying sanctions in case of non-compliance. However, the figure gave rise to an interpretation according to which the bill would establish a "Ministry of Truth", an official censorship body in charge of controlling public discourse. Under pressure, this initiative was withdrawn, leaving the implementation of the law up in the air.

In the context of the last few weeks, in which criticism from the opposition and platforms has reached convulsive levels, Brazilian civil society has come out in defense of the bill, highlighting the importance of discussing plural and democratic mechanisms to regulate technology companies. Although efforts seem to be focused on continuing with the debates in Congress and preventing the bill from sinking, organizations have also expressed their objections to some provisions.

This is the case of the parliamentary immunity established in the text, according to which the speech of congressmen would be specially protected online. For some, this prerogative could deepen the phenomenon of disinformation in the country. Moreover, according to the Direitos Na Rede coalition, some conservative voices, under the facade of freedom of religion, could encourage discriminatory speech against LGBTIQ+ people. 

Another sticking point in the draft, which in part motivated the reaction of technology companies, is an article that provides for the possibility of platforms remunerating media outlets for their content. The draft did not establish a specific model, but left the door open for negotiation in the future. According to Google -in one of the blogs to which they referred their warnings on the search engine- such a measure would only aggravate disinformation in the country, since without a sufficient distinction companies would be forced to allocate resources not only to reliable media but also to portals dedicated to manufacturing fake news.

The response of the platforms to the so-called fake news project is similar to the response they have had to regulatory initiatives in other parts of the world. In February of this year, after the Canadian House of Commons approved media remuneration for platforms, Google limited access to news through its search engine for five weeks, affecting more than one million users. Similarly, last March, while the Australian Parliament was discussing a similar rule, Meta blocked the possibility for users of its platforms to access or share journalistic articles in that country.

In the case of Brazil, the authorities responded with threats of sanctions. Last week, Justice Minister Flávio Dino ordered Google to withdraw its criticism of the bill, which he described as a misleading advertising campaign to manipulate public debate. For his part, on Tuesday 10, Federal Supreme Court Minister Alexandre de Moraes ordered Telegram to remove and retract a message sent through its platform in which he assured that the bill would end freedom of expression in the country.

In the last few days, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Arthur Lira, agreed with the leaders of the main parties to eliminate from the bill the article on the remuneration of journalistic companies. The vote in parliament, which was scheduled for May 2, had to be postponed due to criticism and the unfavorable environment for its approval.

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