Guy Hoskins, a Sylff fellow at York University, traveled to Brazil to study the implications of a new civil law on Internet freedoms with huge implications for privacy, freedom of expression, and network neutrality for Internet users around the world.
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When the revelations made by former US government contractor Edward Snowden emerged regarding his country’s practice of dragnet surveillance of global digital communications, the repercussions were manifold. Some of the consequences, such as diplomatic tensions and a heightened public awareness of data privacy issues, could have been foreseen. Others, however, were much less predictable. One such outlier was the passing into law in Brazil of a bill called the Marco Civil da Internet (the Civil Framework for the Internet) enshrining a substantive set of civil rights for the country’s more than 100 million Internet users, built upon the three pillars of privacy, freedom of expression, and network neutrality. Having been subject to abandoned votes on 29 separate occasions in the country’s lower chamber, the success of this partially crowdsourced, multi-stakeholder policy document was far from assured. The public and executive outrage generated by news of the National Security Agency’s practice of intercepting sensitive Brazilian communications proved to be the tipping point. President Dilma Rousseff signed the bill into law on April 24, 2014.1
Within a global media environment marked by almost daily stories of government infiltration of digital communications, threats against the neutrality of the Internet by telecommunications companies seeking to impose a tiered system, and state and corporate suffocation of freedom of expression online, it is little wonder that a bill of online civil rights in one of the most populous countries on earth should attract the interest of the world. That story, at least for English-speaking audiences, has yet to be fully told. It is the purpose of my doctoral dissertation to address that shortfall. By undertaking a detailed analysis of the development of this world-first bill of rights for Internet users, my hope is that a viable framework can be developed for other countries to follow and to safeguard an Internet legislated according to civic logic. It is not enough to hold aloft the bill itself and point only to the provisions contained therein. In isolation they cannot provide a cogent and replicable model for the rest of the world if the means of their resolution are not properly chronicled and understood.
With an undergraduate degree in Latin American studies, fluency in Portuguese, and experience living and working in the region, I had always attempted to integrate developments in Latin America into my graduate research in communication studies. So when I first read reports about the Marco Civil at the outset of my doctoral studies, it was immediately clear that this would make an excellent object of study. I first traveled to Brazil in March 2014 on a preliminary fact-finding mission while the Marco Civil was still in development. I had the immense good fortune not only to establish a network of contacts among civil society organizations that were promoting the bill but also to be granted access to the Brazilian Congress on the evening of March 25, 2014, to bear witness to the historic successful vote.
Buoyed by these experiences, and with financial assistance from SRA, I planned a period of formal field research in Brazil to coincide with the one-year anniversary of that first vote in March 2015. My primary objective was to interview some of the main protagonists who had participated in the open contribution phase of the bill’s development initiated by the Ministry of Justice. These people represented some of the major stakeholders in the Brazilian Internet, including telecommunications corporations, government bureaucrats, members of Congress, civil society leaders, traditional media companies, and web service companies. In gathering firsthand testimony from these individuals, I sought to discover how different groups of social actors were guided by particular logics with regard to the future direction of the Internet—profit, state security, surveillance, civic engagement, innovation, etc.—and how these were tied to the social values of privacy, freedom of expression, and economic freedom that ultimately form the technical and legal operating environment of a national Internet.
Network neutrality has received much media and public attention in recent months as the subject of major regulatory decisions in the United States, India, and the European Union, as well as of course in Brazil. It was fascinating to observe how what might appear at first glance to be a rather arcane technical premise—that all the data that flows on the Internet must be treated equally without any attempt by network administrators to allow data from certain sources to travel faster than any other—was articulated and interpreted by the different stakeholders in the Marco Civil case.
Traditional media companies, dominated in Brazil by the ubiquitous Globo Group, saw net neutrality as a means to ensure mass access to their commercial content. Web companies interpreted it as a safeguard for innovative new online services. Telecommunications companies opposed it on the grounds that it would stifle the potential for new business models. Civil society organizations generally viewed the legislation as essential to both consumers’ rights to digital services and citizens’ rights to freedom of knowledge. Identifying and charting these diverse interpretations of one element of the technical architecture of the Internet can allow us to better understand why these details are so fiercely contested and to appreciate the deeply social process that underpins these apparently neutral technological considerations.
Another essential facet of the Marco Civil process that I was able to appreciate much better after speaking with my interviewees was the way in which the object of the policymaking process—the Internet itself—had influenced how the various groups were able to “operationalize” their agendas or logics. The Brazilian government’s use of an online consultation forum opened the bill to large-scale public scrutiny and input. This made the legislative project much more democratically legitimate—a fact that helped considerably to overcome partisan opposition in Congress. Civil society groups took advantage of the same mechanism to raise public awareness of the substantive issues under discussion while the telecommunications companies, with no little irony, were the group most disadvantaged by the transparency and ready coalition-building facilitated by the Internet and continued to pursue their traditional tactics of backroom lobbying rather than exposing rational arguments to the oxygen of (online) publicity.
I am now in the early phases of data analysis as I translate, transcribe, and codify the hours of interview footage I gathered during my fieldwork in Brazil. As I work, I seek the insights that will allow me to portray as accurately as possible how, in spite of a concentration of forces applying logics of profit and control online, “another Internet is possible” (Franklin, 20132)—one premised on safeguarding freedom of expression, data privacy, and network neutrality.
2Franklin, M.I. (2013) Digital Dilemmas: Power, Resistance and the Internet, Oxford: Oxford University Press.