Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is temporarily banning social media companies from removing certain content, including his claims that the only way he will lose next year’s election is if the vote is rigged – one of the most important steps a democratically elected leader is taking to control what can be said online.
The new social media rules, which were issued this week and take effect immediately, appear to be the first time a national government has prevented internet companies from removing content that violates its rules, according to experts and officials in internet law at tech companies. They come at a critical moment for Brazil.
Mr Bolsonaro has used social media as a megaphone to build his political movement and reach the president’s office. Now, with polls showing he would lose the presidential election if it were held today, he is using sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to try to undermine the legitimacy of the vote, according to the rulebook of his close ally, former President Donald J. trump card. On Tuesday, Mr. Bolsonaro repeated his claims about the election to thousands of supporters in two cities as part of nationwide demonstrations on Brazil’s Independence Day.
Under the new policy, tech companies can remove posts only if they include certain topics identified in the action, such as nudity, drugs and violence, or if they encourage crime or infringe copyright; To take down others, they must obtain a court order. This indicates that in Brazil, tech companies can easily remove a nude photo, but do not lie about the Corona virus. The pandemic has been a major topic of misinformation under Bolsonaro, with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube removing videos of it pushing unproven drugs as a treatment for the coronavirus.
“You can only imagine how difficult it is for a large platform to get an injunction for every bit of misinformation they find,” said Carlos Afonso Souza, a professor of law at Rio de Janeiro State University.
Mr. Afonso Souza said companies have 30 days to update their policies before facing sanctions.
Social media giants have decried the new rules, saying they will allow harmful information to be published. Facebook and YouTube said they have not yet changed the way they handle content in Brazil. Twitter declined to say.
Brazil’s new internet rules are the latest effort in a larger battle waged by conservatives against Silicon Valley. Politicians and critics on the right have argued that tech companies censor conservative voices, and have increased pressure on laws that make it difficult for social networks to remove posts or accounts from their sites.
Florida passed a law in May that fines internet companies that block any political candidate from their sites, even though a federal judge banned them a month later. The Texas governor is soon expected to sign a similar bill into law. Other countries have proposed similar legislation, but Brazil’s new policy appears to be the most important measure to be enacted at the national level.
in a Share on TwitterMr Bolsonaro’s government said the policy “prohibits the removal of content that could lead to any kind of ‘censorship of the political, ideological, scientific, artistic or religious system'”.
In addition to defining the types of posts companies can remove, the rules can also require tech companies to justify the removal of any post or account, even those with protected exceptions. The government can then force companies to take back the post or account if it decides the removal is not justified.
Facebook said the action “significantly impedes our ability to limit abuse on our platform” and that the company agreed with “legal and professional experts who view the action as a violation of constitutional rights.”
Twitter said the policy is changing Brazil’s current internet law, “as well as undermining the values and consensus it was built on”.
YouTube said it was still analyzing the law before making any changes. “We will continue to make clear the importance of our policies, and the risks to our users and creators if we are unable to implement them,” the company said.
It was not clear how the measure would affect content outside Brazil.
Although far-reaching, the new rules likely won’t hold, according to political and legal analysts who track Brazil. Mr Bolsonaro issued it as a temporary measure, a type of emergency order meant to tackle urgent cases. These measures expire in 120 days if the Brazilian Congress does not make them permanent. Some members of Congress have already publicly opposed the measure, and five political parties and a Brazilian senator have filed lawsuits with the country’s Supreme Court seeking to block it.
But Mr Bolsonaro told his supporters at a rally on Tuesday that he would ignore the rulings of a Supreme Court judge who helped lead investigations into Mr. Bolsonaro’s administration, alarming observers around the world that the president threatens Brazilian democracy.
Mr Afonso Souza, a law professor, said the country’s Supreme Court could overturn the measure before internet companies are forced to comply, but said it set a dangerous precedent.
He said the president had found a way to ensure that disinformation remained on the Internet and facilitated its spread.
Mr. Bolsonaro has taken other steps to make it more difficult to combat online misinformation. This month, for example, he vetoed a portion of the National Security Act that would have imposed criminal penalties on people convicted of orchestrating mass disinformation campaigns.
Matthew Taylor, director of the Brazilian Research Initiative at American University, said Bolsonaro has been using internet politics to mobilize his supporters and distract from scandals about his handling of the pandemic and his clashes with the courts. Mr. Bolsonaro portrayed this moment as decisive for the fate of his political movement.
“The timing was not wrong,” Mr. Taylor said of the policy enacted on the eve of the protests that Mr Bolsonaro had hoped would galvanize support for his embattled presidency. “This is playing for Bolsonaro’s local audience.”
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Brazilian government He said in a post on Twitter It was “taking the global lead in defending freedom of expression on social networks and protecting the right of citizens to freedom of thought and expression.” The government did not respond to requests for further comment.
Mr Bolsonaro has alarmed many sectors in Brazil in recent months with his increasingly authoritarian responses to a series of political crises, including the escalating pandemic outbreak, economic woes, judicial investigations into his family and declining poll numbers. He has attacked Brazil’s electronic voting system as a reason to rule out upcoming elections, recently telling his supporters that there are only three outcomes to his presidency: re-elected, imprisoned or killed.
In July, YouTube removed 15 videos of Bolsonaro for spreading misinformation about the coronavirus. Late last month, YouTube said that, under orders from a Brazilian court, it had halted payments to 14 pro-Bolsonaro channels that spread false information about next year’s presidential election.
Brazil’s Supreme Court is also investigating disinformation in the country. Bolsonaro became a target of those investigations last month, and several of his allies have been questioned or arrested.
this week, Jason MillerMr. Trump, a former adviser to Mr. Trump, was held for three hours at an airport in Brasilia, the country’s capital, where he had flown to a conservative political conference. In an interview, Mr. Miller said authorities told him they were questioning him as part of the Supreme Court’s investigation. “It was ridiculous,” he said. “It really shows how much freedom of expression is under attack in the country of Brazil.”
Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist who won the presidential election in 2018, has long been compared to Mr. Trump. His recent actions — including allegations of fraudulent elections, skepticism about the coronavirus, and complaints about oversight of big tech companies — have deepened the parallels.
Trump lost his megaphone this year when tech companies kicked him off their sites over comments he made about the storming of the US Capitol in January.
More recently, Mr. Bolsonaro has sought to reduce his dependence on big tech companies. On Monday, he urged people on Twitter and Facebook to follow him on Telegram, a messaging service with a hands-off approach to content.
Daphne Keeler, professor of Internet law at Stanford University, said conservative politicians have proposed laws like the Brazilian action in the United States, Poland and Mexico, but none have passed.
“If pallets had to hold whatever was legal, they would turn into horrific vats that no one would want to use,” Ms Keeler said. “It’s a mechanism for the government to put its thumb on the scale to say what can be seen on the Internet.”
Liz Morricone contributed reporting.