This post originally appeared on the Open Technology Institute blog.
After canceling her October visit to DC, Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff addressed the United Nations General Assembly on September 24th during the High Level Meeting for the Rule of Law. The UNGA is the main deliberative, policymaking, and representative organ of the United Nations and comprises all 193 Members of the United Nations. Brazilians welcomed their president’s decision to cancel her October trip and address US Internet surveillance in a public, global forum.
President Rouseff noted that illegally intercepting communications, information, and data cannot be sustained among friendly nations. In saying this, she was not simply speaking in the manufactured outrage so typical of politics. She was instead speaking from a very different experience fighting against the dictatorship in Brazil in her youth. In dictatorships, surveillance is an essential tool that protects the regime. This is what makes the right to privacy a pillar for freedom of expression, freedom of opinion, and fundamental to democracy. That’s the sad irony of the US government’s relentless push to monitor the Internet, including domestic metadata. It’s the kind of thing that dictatorships do. The only thing different is the intent.
I’m well aware that nation-states spy on each other. Most of us who have spent time in international relations know this. But it’s usually a matter of spying on each other’s governments (or in some cases, businesses) and not on ordinary citizens. (I am a Brazilian citizen living in the US, so I can only assume the NSA monitors my Skype calls home – and, for that matter, my Amazon purchases). We may have simply been naive in believing this was because of principle, when instead it was merely a matter of cost. Now that the transaction costs are low enough, however, anyone may become fair game.
However, Brazil is not a small country, and Rouseff is not a fearful president. She looked directly at President Obama while affirming, categorically, that without respect, there is no basis for the relationship among nations. She was also very specific in her stance, demanding a multilateral mechanism to ensure core principles for the world wide web. In an act that may invite deeper governance influence for Brazil at the UN and its International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – the international organization that is trying to extend its authority over digital networks – Rouseff called out five essential affirmations for digital rights on the Internet:
- “Freedom of expression, privacy of the individual and respect for human rights.”
- “Open, multilateral and democratic governance, carried out with transparency by stimulating collective creativity and the participation of society, Governments, and the private sector.”
- “Universality that ensures the social and human development and the construction of inclusive and non-discriminatory societies.”
- “Cultural diversity, without the imposition of beliefs, customs and values.”
- “Neutrality of the network, guided only by technical and ethical criteria, rendering it inadmissible to restrict it for political, commercial, religious or any other purposes.”
These principles were applauded by international civil society and mirror the national debate of the Brazilian Constitution for the Internet, locally known as the Marco Civil. The Marco Civil would be a domestic groundbreaker, guaranteeing civil rights in the use of the Internet. Internationally, Marco Civil would be for the highest benchmark for “open” Internet legislation ever to be enacted. Rouseff recently expressed her support for Marco Civil and has ordered it to be processed in the Congress under a 90-day fast track review (45 in the House and 45 days in the Senate).
In thinking that national sovereignty includes the right to live a private life within one’s own borders, Rouseff is not alone. But Brazil is uniquely able to push back at the infrastructure level to encode this principle into the network itself. The country first connected to the Internet in 1990, and connectivity is now available in most areas through a variety of technologies. We constitute more than 94 million of Internet users, and are 2nd worldwide in number of Facebook users. Brazil now wants to provide internet connection beyond its borders and build more Internet exchange points in an effort to have more control over its communication infrastructure, a core economic element that also allows for better control over what happens to the privacy of its nationals.
As reported by Bill Woodcock for Aljazeera America last Tuesday, Rouseff also announced measures to increase domestic Internet bandwidth production, increase international Internet connectivity, encourage domestic content production, and encourage use of domestically produced network equipment. However, some of these measures are not new nor an immediate response to Snowden’s revelations. Brazil has been in investing in ICTs for some time, including massive government investments on broadband connectivity with the Brazilian 2010 Broadband Plan – which is late on its deliverables but still is underway. Ultimately, this move suggests that rather than relying on US cables, US companies, and US state policy, Brazil aims to achieve a leading role on Internet governance by providing core Internet infrastructure to the country and by connecting the country with other countries in the Global South.
That is to say, the Brazilian government may take one of the classic principles of the Internet and apply it to statecraft: interpret the surveillance as damage, and route around it. Brazil is one of the few countries that can simply lay new cables over which the US has no control, and impose privacy by default in those systems. See for instance, the BRICS cable. By the time it is completed, the BRICS Cable will be the third longest undersea telecommunications cable in the world, covering a distance of 34,000km.
For all the rhetoric of a stateless cyberspace, the raw physicality of the network makes it vulnerable to statecraft. Until now, that statecraft has been dominated by a state that places a prime on certain priorities at the expense of civil liberties. But there is nothing in the network that prevents a state with other priorities from joining the fray.
Does this mean that by creating its own infrastructure, Brazil wants to have more control over the Internet? This is the question we all should have in the back of our minds while the infrastructure is being laid. Brazilian civil society should also demand a series of checks and balances, so we are not surprised later with intelligence programs that the Brazilian government might impose. This need for transparency and accountability is even more pressing now with the 2014 World Cup approaching – Brazil has deployed a massive technology infrastructure to surveil the games and proximal events in the name of security. It will be interesting to see if, how, and when this setup is dismantled. This ICT infrastructure may be able to help or hurt the open Internet depending on its design and its use. Again, we all should watch and see if the distributed design is the mode of this enterprise and if Brazil is really part of the group of countries that support in action, not just in words, the future of and open and free Internet.
 For instance, it has been published that the United States used information collected by the NSA to influence the votes of the UN Security Council members on the Iranian nuclear issue in 2010.