(IPS) – Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed into law an Internet bill of rights just before her opening speech at an international conference on Internet reform in the southern city of São Paulo Wednesday.
The new law, known as the “Marco Civil”, was the focus of the first panel at the two-day NETMundial conference, and the speakers and the public interrupted their debates to applaud and cheer Brazil’s unique legislation, which could become a global model.
According to Justice Minister José Eduardo Cardozo, the legislation is not only innovative “in terms of its content, but of its method as well,” because it was drawn up with the active participation of society and digital activists. “There were more than 2,000 contributions, and a large part of them were accepted,” the official said.
He described the legislation as “a bill of rights and a new set of relations that debunk various preconceptions.”
The first of these is that there is no need to regulate the Internet. Doubters were convinced of the urgent need to do so in a world where things are increasingly determined by digital relations, the minister said.
Ronaldo Lemos, director of the open licensing system Creative Commons in Brazil and a professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation’s law school, said this country “is taking on a leadership role in a complex discussion.”
The Marco Civil is path-breaking because it seeks to protect net neutrality, equal access and freedom of expression, and argues for “multi-sector” governance of the Internet, he said. “The web will not be regulated by the government, but by all sectors of society,” he stated at the conference.
In Lemos’ view, the United States has lost ground in the debate on the Internet as a result of the global espionage carried out by its National Security Agency, which former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden revealed in mid-2013.
“The responsibility of moving forward on this has fallen to Brazil,” Lemos said.
The idea for holding the conference emerged “just after Snowden’s revelations,” Virgilio Almeida, one of the coordinators of NETMundial and secretary of IT policy at the Ministry of Science and Technology, told the press.
In September 2013, President Rousseff protested the U.S. spying – which affected strategic interests in Brazil – at the United Nations General Assembly, and called for the adoption of a global civilian multi-stakeholder framework for the governance and use of the Internet.
The aim of NETMundial, which received 188 contributions from 46 countries, is to discuss the future of Internet governance, including reforms, taking into account privacy, inviolability of online communications, the right to democratic debate and freedom of association.
There have been important advances in Brazil, where 100 million people – half of the population – are connected to the Internet, said Diogo de Sant’Ana, executive secretary of the Federal Data Processing Service (Serpro), the biggest government-owned IT services corporation in Brazil.
In Brazil, at least 85 percent of public purchases are made over the Internet, and the 27 million people who pay income tax file their returns online – unprecedented in the world, Sant’Ana told IPS.
Beá Tibiriçá, director of Coletivo Digital, took the opportunity to send a message to the mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, who was at the conference.
“São Paulo has always been in the vanguard, mayor. It’s time to reopen all of the city’s telecentres,” Tibiriçá told IPS. Since early this year, the municipal authorities have closed down 46 of the city’s public Internet cafés, because of different irregularities.
But the advances made for society in the Marco Civil do not mean an end to the struggle for transparency and online security, said Daniela Silva, one of the members of Transparência Hacker, a São Paulo-based online activist group that promotes political participation and fights for transparency.
Silva added that in the conference, she was forced to be a “party pooper and turn down the volume of the music at the height of the celebrations,” because in her view there is a huge “black hole” in the legislature which makes it very difficult to find out about and follow every amendment presented by lawmakers.
Furthermore, the goal now is to try to revoke article 15 of the Marco Civil, which opens up windows for violations of privacy, Silva and other participants said.
Critics say article 15 violates the privacy of users because it stipulates that providers of Internet applications must keep records on users dating back at least six months.
Manuel Castells, a professor at the Open University of Catalonia in Spain, said that since formal institutions are not capable of addressing the public’s new demands and wishes, there is a natural tendency to start organising protests over the online social networks, as happened last year in Brazil and Turkey.
Activism has not died down on the Internet – just the contrary, said Castells. Demands expressed online have been maturing and have expanded exponentially, resulting, to the surprise of many, in demonstrations by thousands or even tens or hundreds of thousands of people in the streets.
“The political class cannot distance itself from society,” he said. “It’s not about seizing power, but about dissolving power.”
Javier Toret, one of the leaders of Spain’s 15M protest movement, said the power of the social networks even forced mainstream media outlets like big newspapers or major TV channels to report on the demonstrations, which at first were ignored by the press.
According to a study by the 15M movement, calls issued over the Internet mobilised 40 percent of protesters in Brazil, 29 percent in Spain, 25 percent in Turkey, and 39 percent in Egypt – described as an impressive percentage.
Laura Murillo, a representative of the Mexican student movement Yo Soy 132, warned that a regressive law to regulate Internet is being drawn up in her country.
The bill would allow the government to ask, without a legal warrant, that Internet providers block access to certain content, Murillo said. She added that it would not guarantee users’ privacy, and would require businesses to store data about users for two years, which the government could access at any moment.
But the worst thing, she said, is that the authorities could block access to the Internet in different regions, for an indefinite period of time.
* Marcia Pinheiro is an Envolverde journalist.