Fake news bill treats all Brazilian netizens as potential criminals

. Jun 22, 2020
Fake news bill treats all Brazilian netizens as potential criminals Photo: ADragan/Shutterstock

A highly consequential vote is set to take place in the Brazilian Senate on Thursday, yet it has strangely flown under the radar of the domestic press. It is the so-called Internet Freedom, Responsibility, and Transparency Act, drafted in reaction to inquiries in Congress and the Supreme Court into the spreading of fake news for political gain.

The original proposal has been altered by its rapporteur, Senator Angelo Coronel, from Bahia — in what is less of a facelift and more like an extreme makeover, introducing a number of highly controversial provisions into the bill of law.

</p> <p>In one of these questionable points, the bill greenlights social media companies and messaging services to unilaterally remove content if it is considered to be fraudulent by a panel of independent fact-checkers. Internet civil rights organizations have spoken out against that permission, claiming it violates users&#8217; freedoms. They are also against enhanced powers for platforms to identify users, calling it a privacy risk.</p> <p>ANDI, a non-profit organization that operates in Brazil since the 1980s to use journalism in the promotion of human rights, says Mr. Coronel&#8217;s report &#8220;promotes massive surveillance,&#8221; and opens up the possibility for internet users to be criminally persecuted. Pulling no punches, the organization claims it could easily become &#8220;the worst internet freedom of speech law on the planet, straight out of authoritarian countries.&#8221;</p> <iframe src="" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>If approved without changes, the Internet Freedom, Responsibility, and Transparency Act will also contain a determination for the re-enrollment of all prepaid cell phone lines on a <a href=",proporcionar%20mais%20seguran%C3%A7a%20aos%20consumidores.">national database</a>. As things stand, there are 135 million numbers logged on this register, and only 0.25 percent have problems with inconsistencies and missing data.&nbsp;</p> <p>At the same time, it would require social media users to present a proof of identity to access the platforms, in order to deter bots or fake accounts. With the pretext of curbing the possible nefarious uses of social media, the bill &#8220;shreds the presumption of innocence, treating all Brazilians as potential criminals,&#8221; according to ANDI.&nbsp;The senator, however, believes that the <a href="">trade-off is worth it</a>. &#8220;All freedom of speech has to meet some limit. It is not about having the liberty to lie and insult people. I don&#8217;t want to lift the secrecy of people&#8217;s personal information —&nbsp;I want to know who is committing crimes,&#8221; he says.</p> <p>Still, ANDI points out the bill&#8217;s four cardinal sins: (1) the creation of inconsistent criteria to determine what is a &#8220;fraudulent&#8221; piece of content; (2) the possibility of all users being monitored and identified; (3) the &#8220;criminalization&#8221; of internet speech; (4) the lack of accountability for social media platforms.</p> <p>There is an additional disturbing point in Senator Angelo Coronel&#8217;s text, forcing social media platforms to create a &#8216;forwarding chain,&#8217; a sort of flow chart that would allow law enforcement to trace the exact path of a piece of information. Each chain of messages would have to be stored for at least four months.</p> <h2>Crime and punishment</h2> <p>Creating fake news, per se, is not a crime in Brazil. As of today, disinformation must fit the criteria of crimes such as libel or defamation in order to be prosecuted. That would change with Senator Angelo Coronal&#8217;s bill. He defends tough punishment for disinformation agents, calling those who produce and spread false information &#8220;criminals like any other.&#8221; Mr. Coronel adds that the devastating effects of online crimes against one&#8217;s reputation are more pernicious than on other mediums, due to their potential for spreading.&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;We must have a harsh law. There is no point in having a new law without the necessary penalties to correct the mentality of those who commit crimes,&#8221; said Mr. Coronel. The senator plans to include ten articles creating new crimes and penalties for internet users. Some are as vague as &#8220;displaying political preferences,&#8221; or &#8220;raising dangers to social peace of the country&#8217;s economic order.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <p>Experts believe the broadness of the list of crimes could create a system by which all power lies in the hands of judges. &#8220;Any ill-intentioned judge with an agenda could condemn people for making political statements,&#8221; says ANDI in a report.</p> <p>After all, &#8220;fake news&#8221; is one of those terms that have been overused to the point of losing its meaning. Today, it can be misconstrued as pretty much any piece of information someone disagrees with or doesn&#8217;t appreciate.</p> <p>Take the <a href="">Supreme Court fake news probe</a>, for instance. For the past few weeks, justices have <a href="">zeroed in on supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro</a> who are suspected of promoting hate speech against the court&#8217;s justices and threatening their safety. While some Bolsonaro supporters have certainly crossed all moral lines — spouting reprehensible death threats online — most of the content labeled &#8220;fake news&#8221; is nothing more than <a href="">crude criticism</a> against the court, including the use of a hashtag simply calling the court &#8220;shameful.&#8221;</p> <p>The probe was even used as justification to censor a <a href="">story</a> by online magazine Crusoé, linking Chief Justice Dias Toffoli to construction firm Odebrecht. Many parties called the investigation a move that would be at home in a dictatorial police state. It was only once the inquiry&#8217;s sights were placed on the Bolsonaro camp that outrage subsided.</p> <p>This is a prime example of the perils of defining what is &#8220;fake news.&#8221; The sad reality in present-day Brazil is an almost Sartrist perspective: fake news is other people.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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