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An Online Bill of Rights in Brazil

New legislation providing a bill of rights for internet users in Brazil was signed into law by President Dilma Rousseff on April 23. I spoke to Ronaldo Lemos, an expert on digital rights who helped create the original legislation. Lemos, formerly of Brazil’s Centre for Technology and Society, now works with Brazil’s Institute of Technology and Society. Both organizations are Open Society grantees.

What are digital civil rights? Why are they important to an open society?

Prior to the passage of this law, the digital civil rights of Brazilians—like net neutrality and the right to privacy and free expression online—were not explicitly guaranteed.

While it can be easy to take these rights for granted, a systematic, comprehensive, and democratic legislative effort is required to adapt these rights to the digital world. If we want to achieve the same standard of openness that underlies the existence of fundamental rights and civil liberties in society, we have to make sure these rights and protections exist online as well. In that sense, this is one of the most important challenges to an open society.

What is the Marco Civil?

The “Marco Civil da Internet” is a comprehensive law that essentially creates a bill of rights for the internet in Brazil. The legislation was originally drafted through an open, collaborative process with contributions from a variety of stakeholders—private individuals, civil society organizations, telecommunication companies, and government agencies all participated. Each contributor could see other comments and all perspectives were considered. 

The only drawback to the law is the requirement that both connection providers and service providers retain user data for a year and a half, though this is dependent on a court order. But this is better than the current situation, where user data is often stored for five years.

What would digital civil rights look like in Brazil without the Marco Civil?

Without the Marco Civil, freedom of speech in Brazil would consistently be under threat. For example, in 2007, a judge shut down YouTube for the entire country because a Brazilian model filed a lawsuit to block footage of her and her boyfriend in an intimate situation.  Another recent case involved a judge threatening to shut down Facebook because of a lawsuit between neighbors engaged in a dispute over a dog. Without the Marco Civil, there would be no safe harbors for free speech.

Why is the success of the Marco Civil important to the broader community?

The Brazilian Marco Civil runs counter to laws recently implemented in countries like Turkey and Russia which expanded the powers of governments to regulate the internet.

Brazil’s law can be a model for other countries. It sends a message that we need to encourage a vibrant and open public sphere online. The approval of the Marco Civil is a victory on behalf of all democracies. Brazil has taken a stand to actively protect an open and free internet. And that is a requisite for an open and free society as well.

What work lies ahead in Brazil regarding digital rights?

The Marco Civil was an extremely important step, but there is still a lot of work to do. Brazil does not have any data protection laws and Brazil’s freedom of information law needs to be expanded and deepened so that it takes privacy into account.

New laws guaranteeing free speech are also critical, as freedom of expression continues to be under threat in Brazil: Newspapers are being censored, journalists and bloggers are being killed, and draconian court decisions have led to the removal of web content during elections. 

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