2020 Virtual Edition on Digital Politics: Jeffrey Omari

Postscript to “Digital Access Amongst the Marginalized: Democracy and Internet Governance in Rio de Janeiro

By Jeffrey Omari

My 2018 article, “Digital Access Amongst the Marginalized: Democracy and Internet Governance in Rio de Janeiro,” examined the right to Internet access as codified by Brazil’s visionary cyber law, the Marco Civil da Internet (MCI), and how the virtues of increased digital access in Rio’s favelas (informal, historically low-income communities) are often co-opted within the complex social dynamics of these disadvantaged urban communities. I discussed the “open” values of the MCI and how these values were meant to promote democracy and help bridge digital inequalities in Brazil, a country deemed one of the world’s most inequitable (Scott 2016). While that article argued that the disjunctive nature of Brazil’s democratic past has hindered the MCI’s dreams of a utopian digital future, events in the five years since the law’s enactment illustrate that the country’s future may also be working against the technological advancement sought through the MCI’s brand of digital idealism. In this Postscript, I trace the relevant events that have unfolded since the MCI’s enactment to demonstrate the emerging political and technological challenges presented by the MCI’s attempt to advance open values in Internet governance.

When the MCI was enacted in April 2014, Dilma Rousseff (widely known as “Dilma”) was still Brazil’s president and her Worker’s Party (PT) was enjoying an unprecedented reign of power in the Brazilian government. At that time, however, the now-infamous Lavo Jato (Car Wash) investigations were emerging, and the country was entering an extraordinary period of political turmoil. The probe initially involved money laundering, but morphed into an expansive investigation involving Petrobras, Brazil’s largest public oil company headquartered in Rio de Janeiro. Executives from the oil company allegedly accepted bribes in return for rewarding inflated contracts to several of Brazil’s largest construction firms. Because the investigations challenged a long system of impunity for Brazil’s elite, the corruption scandal grew to implicate many of the most prominent politicians and executives in Brazil and Latin America more broadly.

Dilma was a board member of Petrobras during the time of the alleged corruption and thus became a subject of the ongoing criminal inquiry. While no direct evidence implicating Dilma in the Lavo Jato has been made public, her presidency was suspended in May 2016­—just two years after she signed the MCI into law—followed by the Brazilian Congress’ vote to impeach her on charges of manipulating the country’s budget (Watts 2016). On her final day in office, Dilma signed a decree that broadly implemented the norms of the MCI (Arnaudo 2017). Although the MCI had been signed into law two years earlier in April 2014, the Brazilian government took its time to determine how the legislation would best be applied and regulated. The culmination of that process was Dilma signing the May 2016 decree amidst the turmoil of her forthcoming impeachment proceedings, demonstrating that the MCI was highly regarded by both Dilma and the PT.

Dilma’s removal from office meant the end of the PT’s 13-year reign in Brazil’s highest office, a time when PT policies uplifted the country’s economy and raised millions out of poverty. After Dilma’s impeachment, vice president Michel Temer took office. Temer, a member of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), swiftly implemented harsh austerity measures that countered many of the progressive PT initiatives aimed at mitigating inequality. The shift in governmental policies indicated fundamental differences between Temer and those of his predecessor.

This schism between PT policies and those of succeeding administrations culminated with the country’s November 2018 presidential elections, resulting in many Brazilians experiencing a shock similar to that experienced by US voters after Donald Trump’s election in 2016 (Cesarino 2019). This shock was the result of the election of the far right-wing Jair Bolsonaro, which was in many ways fueled by supporters who lived in a very different electoral world. Brazilian commentators have noted how Bolsonaro supporters operated within huge social media bubbles that were intentionally isolated from Brazil’s mainstream public sphere (Nemer 2019; Cesarino 2019). Certain social media networks circulated various kinds of pro-Bolsonaro digital content—i.e., “fake news”—and were closed to anyone who was unsupportive. These closed networks created a digital polarization that enabled online behavior to be “effectively converted into offline election results” (Cesarino 2019). Writing for this PoLAR Online, anthropologist Letícia Cesarino (2019) termed this closed mechanism of building technologically-mediated political hegemony as “digital populism.” Even now, over a year after Bolsonaro’s election, messaging applications like WhatsApp still serve as largely hidden platforms for Brazil’s right-wing radicals (Nemer 2019).

Given these facts, the question emerges: how can this conflict of closed social media applications be reconciled with the open values of the MCI? Critics point specifically to the MCI’s intermediary liability provisions (Thompson 2018), which are found in Articles 18 and 19 of the legislation. These provisions place civil liability for Internet content on Internet users, and not on application or service providers. Specifically, these intermediary liability provisions state that the companies who deliver Internet traffic—commonly known as “Internet intermediaries,” which may consist of entities like Facebook and Twitter, and Internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast—cannot be held liable for the traffic that flows through their networks. Intermediary liability safeguards are meant to help prevent censorship by Internet intermediaries and are thus intended to safeguard Internet users’ rights to freedom of speech and expression.

Removing such provisions would potentially provide for a cause of action against services like Whatsapp that, through their tremendous influence, help facilitate the type of digital populism experienced in Brazil. In this instance, however, the consequence  of promoting the open values of the MCI appears to be the unfortunate rise of digital populism, which is a direct threat to the very same democratic values that the MCI seeks to advance.

In the pages of this journal, Cesar (2019) aptly encourages readers to view the burning of Brazil’s Museu Nacional as a metaphor for the crisis in Brazilian government under Bolsonaro’s leadership. Indeed, Cesar suggests that the government’s negligent handling of the Museu fire illustrates “to the supporters of this new political pact that some institutions and values must be rescued at any cost whereas others must be burnt down” (Cesar 2019).

Applying Cesar’s metaphor to the open values of the MCI may perhaps belie the democratic objectives upon which that law was founded. Under most circumstances, Brazil’s current political regime would likely see little value in relying on legislation implemented under the previous leadership of Dilma and the PT. In this instance, however, the open principles of the MCI—specifically, as they relate to intermediary liability—appear to further a style of digital populism that provides political value to the current Brazilian government. Indeed, as long as it furthers Bolsonaro’s cause, the open values of the MCI might be preserved, regardless of their political origins.

Jeffrey Omari is an incoming assistant professor at Northern Illinois University College of Law. As a legal scholar and cultural anthropologist, he uses ethnographic research to investigate the socio-legal intersections between communication rights and transnational internet governance.

Works Cited

Arnaudo, Daniel. 2017. “Brazil, the Internet and the Digital Bill of Rights: Reviewing the State of Brazilian Internet Governance.” Instituto Igarapé, April 2017. Accessed March 22, 2018. https://igarape.org.br/o-brasil-e-o-marco-civil-da-Internet/.

Cesar, Rafael do Nascimento. 2019. “Brazil is Burning!” PoLAR Online, April 15. Accessed December 11, 2019. https://polarjournal.org/2019/04/15/brazil-is-burning/.

Cesarino, Letícia. 2019. “On Digital Populism in Brazil.” PoLAR Online, April 15. Accessed December 11, 2019. https://polarjournal.org/2019/04/15/on-jair-bolsonaros-digital-populism/.

Nemer, David. 2019. “Whatsapp is Radicalizing the Right in Bolsonaro’s Brazil.” The Huffington Post, August 16. Accessed December 11, 2019. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/brazil-jair-bolsonaro-whatsapp_n_5d542b0de4b05fa9df088ccc.

Scott, Jason B. 2016. “Pacified Inclusion: Digital Inclusion in Brazil’s Most Violent Favelas.” In Urban Solutions: Metropolitan Approaches, Innovation in Urban Water and Sanitation, and Inclusive Smart Cities 105-22. Washington DC: Wilson Center.

Thompson, Marcelo. 2018. “O Marco Civil da Internet Ajudou a Eleger Bolsonaro.” The Intercept Brasil, October 29. Accessed December 13, 2019.

Watts, Jonathan. 2016. “Dilma Rousseff: Brazilian Congress Votes to Impeach President.” The Guardian, April 18. Accessed May 9, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/18/dilma-rousseff-congress-impeach-brazilian-president.

About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_anthropology/curtis_jennifer.

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