Brazil Is Making a Serious Play to Decentralize Control of the Internet

Brazil President Dilma Rousseff signed new internet legislation into law today, continuing her push to decentralize control of the web.

Image: Moreira Mariz/Agência Senado

After the NSA's global surveillance programs were revealed last year, few countries have been as vocal about internet reform than Brazil. And today, the country took concrete steps to securing a more democratic web: At an event about the future of the internet held in São Paulo, Brazil President Dilma Rousseff signed into law the country's so-called Internet Constitution, which provides a legal guarantee for net neutrality within the country, among other free internet touchstones.

"We all want to protect the internet as a democratic space that's a shared asset for all of humankind," Rousseff said during a speech at the Net Mundial conference, according to the official translator. "We also want it to remain a strong economic force, providing that it continues to become more inclusive."

Among the many documents released by Edward Snowden was the revelation that Rousseff was personally being spied on by the NSA, along with the Brazilian government and citizens. That reveal led to some rather stunning proposals, including Rousseff's saber-rattling about building a non-US internet, which at one point was a proposed addition to the internet law, known locally as the Marco Civil da Internet.

"These events are not acceptable, were not acceptable in the past, and remain unacceptable today in that they are an affront to the free nature of the internet as an open, democratic platform," Rousseff said today, in reference to government spying programs.

President Rousseff, left, receives applause after signing the Marco Civil this morning. Image: Youtube/Net Mundial

As Bruce Douglas explained for us last year, the non-US proposal, which included requiring that all of Brazilians' online data be stored in Brazil, would have smothered the Brazilian tech industry in new costs, and would have threatened Brazilians' access to foreign services. In March, Rousseff announced that the proposal would be dropped, leaving the rest of the country's internet bill ready for passage.

And, to be clear, it's a groundbreaking piece of legislation that hits a trifecta of key points for open web activists. First, the law guarantees net neutrality provisions, which was approved despite a heavy push by Brazilian telecom groups to allow tiered pricing for different types of content. Tim Berners-Lee, who spoke before Rousseff, applauded the protection.

"The web has now become an essential public utility, and we have to regard it as such," he said. "The explosive growth that happened across the web in the last 25 years only happened because of net neutrality."

Brazil's law also limits metadata collection, and requires that foreign companies—think Google, Facebook, and Twitter—comply with Brazilian laws and, most importantly, court orders for user data, even if said data is stored abroad. (This may prove to be a contentious issue, but as transparency reports highlight, global internet companies already largely comply with local laws.)

The same rights that people are entitled to in the offline world should exist on the online world.

In addition, Reuters reported on a part of the law that hasn't been discussed much: It "protects freedom of expression and information, establishing that service providers will not be liable for content published by users, but they must comply with court orders to remove offensive or libellous material."

"I should actually stress that the same rights that people are entitled to in the offline world should exist on the online world," Rousseff said. 

That follows a landmark NSA speech in January, in which President Barack Obama largely danced around the question of online privacy rights online. For example, when responding to the inability of large tech companies to reveal the scope of spying programs—a veil which has since been partially lifted—Obama said, "This secrecy will not be indefinite, and will terminate within a fixed time unless the government demonstrates a real need for further secrecy."

At the same time, the US has seen support for net neutrality slowly crumble. "I think we’re also going to see a two-sided market where Netflix might say, ‘Well, I’ll pay in order to make sure that you might receive, my subscriber might receive, the best possible transmission of this movie.’ I think we want to let those kinds of things evolve,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in December, just a month into office.

And while the Netflix-Comcast deal that came a couple months later didn't exactly kill net neutrality, it is a real-world example of the US's evolution towards pay-to-play network access that Wheeler predicted. FCC commissioners have said that the agency is committed to the open web, but the lack of comprehensive support for net neutrality on the part of the US government is a large reason why Rousseff and other world leaders want more control over internet governance.

Along with the Brazilian internet law, Rousseff touted a piece of UN legislation she co-sponsored with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was also a target of the NSA, aimed at building more robust global privacy protections for internet users. The UN General Assembly's human rights committee unanimously adopted the resolution last November, which was a symbolic move to guarantee offline human rights in the online space.

With that resolution backed by Brazil's new internet law, it appears that Rousseff has changed tack from trying to deliver direct blows to US internet dominance, and is instead making a heavy diplomatic play to increase equality in global internet governance. Rousseff spent much of her remarks today hitting on that point.

"We all want to protect the internet as a democratic space that's a shared asset for all of humankind. We also want it to remain a strong economic force, providing that it continues to become more inclusive," the Brazilian leader said. "An open and decentralized network architecture favors more access to knowledge. It helps make network access more open and democratic."

That sentiment is becoming increasingly popular in Europe as well, where leaders have pushed to wrest some control of the internet away from the US. Crucially, the European Union voted earlier this month to protect net neutrality, which remains one of the core drivers of internet growth and equality, one that is becoming an increasingly ethereal concept in the US.

Berners-Lee, who created the Web Foundation specifically to promote global human rights protections online and the decentralization of internet governance, said that efforts such as Brazil's and the EU's are the best path to a stronger, freer web.

The legislation from Brazil and the EU are "two data points that suggest we're making progress, but we have a huge way to go," he said. "60 percent of the global population can't use the web at all."

"The web that we will have in another 25 years' time is by no means clear, but it is completely up to us to decide what we want to make that web, what we want to make that world," he continued. "Go define a global magna carta for the web. That's why I'm asking the world to follow Brazil's example, and Europe's example, to develop strong regulations to protect the free and open web."