Brazil passes law which blocks anonymous online criticism of politicians

Ahead of next year’s General Election in Brazil, Congress in the country has passed a controversial new law which allows political parties and individual candidates to force social media sites to remove offensive or defamatory comments about them.

The new law was hidden amongst a host of new rules which Congress agreed to ahead of the elections next year. It applies to any social media posts which are made anonymously or without the full details of the individual posting being available.

It does still require Presidential approval before it makes it onto the statute book. However, the office of current Brazilian President Michel Temer has not yet responded to queries about whether he would approve it.

Censorship without oversight

It is reported that social media sites would need to have the full name, identification and social security number of any author who has posted a comment if they are to refuse to take it down. The new law does not make clear what they would be required to do with that information or where they might have to send it.

There is also no requirement for any judicial oversight of the new power. No court order is required for content to be taken down. Instead, the party or candidate can simply make a demand directly to the social media site when they identify content they have taken offence to.

When questioned by international media about the new law, its author, Congressman Aureo Lidio, from Brazil’s Solidariedade party, made a remarkable statement. He is quoted by Reuters as saying “Freedom of expression is guaranteed, but it cannot be anonymous.”

With such a remarkable disregard for the freedoms and liberties of Brazilian people being shown by the legislators, it is little wonder that campaign groups in the country have called the law a new form of online censorship.

Politicians or judges?

Carlos Affonso Souza, a director at the Institute of Technology and Society, an organisation which campaigns for free online access in Brazil said, “That piece of legislation will transform candidates and parties into electoral judges, with powers to take out of the web any content they consider offensive to them.”

The Institute of Technology and Society has put out a joint statement with other campaign groups saying that “Brazil’s internet legal framework clearly states that only through a judicial order it is possible to force the withdrawal of online content.”

That appears to suggest that should President Temer sign the new law then a legal challenge can be expected to follow. But whether that process can play out in time for the new censorship powers to be blocked ahead of next year’s election remains to be seen.

Brazil’s online censorship history

This is not the first time Brazil has been caught up in an online censorship controversy. It has had a long and difficult relationship with the encrypted messaging service WhatsApp, which has seen the service blocked several times in Brazil, most recently last year.

The country is also only ranked as ‘partly free’ by the reputable Freedom on the Net report, which cites a number of online freedom concerns, most of which remain unresolved. This new law is only likely to impact on that rating still further in this year’s report.

It also seems likely that further restrictions might also crop up in Brazil in the months leading up to the election. Brazil’s democracy has been enduring a difficult time, with multiple corruption scandals engulfing just about all the major parties.

The previous two Presidents are both the subject of ongoing corruption trials, while such is the disillusionment in parts of the country that three states in the south of the country recently hinted at a move towards independence.

It remains to be seen whether social media sites will comply with this new rule, although they do mostly have a track record of following local laws. For Brazilians who do want to exercise their right to criticise the political elites anonymously, a VPN may be the best option to get around government censorship and view online content unimpeded.

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