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Revelations about U.S. espionage pushed Brazil to pass a new law providing privacy protections and expanded access to the Web.

A long-stalled Internet law with expanded privacy and “net neutrality” guarantees will take effect in Brazil next month. For that, Brazilians can thank the U.S. National Security Agency.

Revelations in September by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that the U.S. intelligence agency had been eavesdropping on President Dilma Roussef and the national oil company spurred passage of a law four-years in the making.

“Roussef was very irritated by the NSA’s spying on Brazil,” says Simone Marques, a Brazilian journalist and press freedom advocate who has written for Deutsche Welle.“From then on, the Brazilian Congress was forced to pay attention and streamline the vote…I doubt that the project would have gained so much importance and agility without her complaints and the Snowden leaks,” she told the Global Journalist.

The new law, signed by Roussef on April 23, actually does little to hinder the U.S. government’s ability to peruse the data of Brazilians. But it does place limits on eavesdropping by Brazilians’ own government.

“Things were sped up after the Snowden revelations,” says Geoffrey King, author of a recent report on the law for the Committee to Protect Journalists. In an interview with the Global Journalist, King said, “It wasn’t just the speed of it, but all of a sudden the nature of the political landscape changed where the Marco Civil became the only reliable vehicle for responding to the Snowden revelations because there wasn’t anything else really pending.”

Widely characterized as an Internet “Bill of Rights,” the Marco Civil da Internet limits the amount of metadata that can be collected from Internet users in Brazil, makes Internet service providers (ISPs) not responsible for the content published by their users and also guarantees Web “neutrality” by prohibiting ISPs from favoring certain content. Telecommunications companies, for example, will not be able to charge higher rates for users who use more file-sharing applications or view more videos. In addition, a controversial provision that would have required that Brazilian data be stored within the country—a move that critics claimed could have led to the fragmentation of the World Wide Web and a separate “Brazilian” Internet—was removed prior to final passage.

The law, which goes into effect on June 21, has been praised both nationally and internationally for its focus on protecting privacy and upholding freedom of expression. Supporters have also hailed the grass roots approach that was fundamental to Marco Civil’s creation—Internet rights advocates, web users, telecommunications companies and free speech groups all helped draft the law. Still, in spite the praise certain articles remain controversial.

Specifically, Article 15 of Marco Civil requires application developers such as Facebook and Google to retain users’ browsing data for six months. Additionally, Internet service providers must store user data for a year. The article, which was requested by federal prosecutors, “is intended to facilitate criminal investigations of crimes committed on the Internet,” Alessandro Molon, a Brazilian congressman who served as rapporteur of the bill, told the Global Journalist.

Still, some civil society groups and media activists say that the article threatens privacy and have called on Roussef to rescind it. “The fact is that the article [Article 15] is very poorly written, which gives rise to many interpretations,” says Eduardo Martins Paulico, a computer systems analyst based in the southern city of Curitiba who works for a large energy company. “In Brazil the allegations of Edward Snowden are still fresh in our memories, which created a sense of paranoia regarding the use of our information,” he told the Global Journalist.

Adding to the suspicion are Rousseff’s low approval ratings and sinking trust in government embodied by recent street protests.

“We have a scenario in which the Brazilians try to eliminate any kind of interpretation of the law that can be used by authorities for self-interest, and not for the good of society,” says Paulico.“To civic groups, it [Article 15] is a direct affront to democracy.”

In addition a second provision pertaining to the rights of those whose privacy has been violated has drawn concern. Known as Article 21, a previous version of that article allowed anyone objecting to nudity or sexual content to demand an ISP remove it from the Internet. The article was since modified so that only those depicted in a “private” video or image can demand its removal from the Internet. But CPJ’s King warns that even limited “notice and takedown” regimes often damage free expression and can be abused. The use of privacy laws to censor the press through civil suits, a practice known as “judicial censorship,” is widespread in Brazil. Click here to read more on this coverage.

Flaws aside, many have hailed the Marco Civil as a model for global Internet governance, including Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. Inspired by an open-source design and flush with input from a broad range of Internet users and interests, the Marco Civil largely avoids the content filtering and censoring that countries such as China and Cuba employ.

“The content of Civil Marco very much stresses freedom of expression and the privacy of internet users,” says Paulico, the computer systems analyst. “Brazil is still far from a legitimate democracy… nevertheless, Marco Civil  shows great maturity in its respect for freedom of expression.”

King, CPJ’s Internet Advocacy Coordinator, says much will depend on how the law is implemented. “The real value of the Marco Civil is shifting the frame…freedom and security don’t have to be always so diametrically opposed,” he says. “It has a lot of great provisions, but you have to some extent look at these things as they come up and really make sure they’re really doing what they say they do.”

 

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