Advocates Hail Brazil's “Bill of Rights for the Internet”

Activists celebrate Marco Civil victory in Brasilia. Photo shared by @MarcoCivil via Twitter.

Activists celebrate Marco Civil victory in Brasilia. Photo shared by @MarcoCivil via Twitter.

#EuQueroMarcoCivil – “I want Marco Civil.” It was with this hashtag that Brazilians and supporters around the world pushed mightily yesterday for the passage of the Marco Civil da Internet, the unprecedented “Constitution” or “Bill of Rights for the Internet” that has been brought to Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies nine times since 2012. Late in evening, the Chamber approved the one-of-kind bill that ensures fundamental rights of free expression and privacy online.

Throughout the day, Twitter users touted the bill’s many safeguards for fundamental user rights to free expression, privacy, and access to information using the #MarcoCivil and #EuQueroMarcoCivil hashtags. In Brasilia, the nation’s capital, supporters voiced their support using signs, t-shirts, and other creative methods.

A screen shows the vote tally as activists cheer for the bill from the upper level of the Chamber. Photo shared by Carolina Rossini via Twitter.

A screen shows the vote tally as activists cheer for the bill from the upper level of the Chamber. Photo shared by Carolina Rossini via Twitter.

Shortly after the vote, Global Voices conducted email interviews with three of the bill’s original authors, all of whom had active roles in supporting its journey through the legislative process. Carolina Rossini, now a lawyer with the Washington-based New America Foundation, was exuberant in her reply:

“I feel my Carnival has finally arrived after years of work in partnership with various civil society, academia, policy makers and business groups that understand the Internet as a space for democracy and innovation!” she said. “This is a collective victory, nationally and internationally.”

Fundacao Getulio Vargas researcher Joana Varon, also co-director of the FreeNet advocacy film series, echoed Rossini’s excitement:

The approval of Marco Civil, a bill of rights to protect users, is important not only for the country, but also for the world….In a context where the interests of telecom operators, copyright industry, IT companies and sometimes even the Brazilian state are essentially in opposition with the protection of user's rights, having a text — developed in an open, transparent and participative way — that protects of the right to access, to privacy protection, to freedom of expression, and net neutrality, among others, is a very, very positive step.

Despite the efforts of the telco lobby, the bill provides strong protections for network neutrality. As many users put it, this will negate the threat of Internet service being sold in a fashion similar to cable television.

The public stake in the Marco Civil is remarkable, but not surprising. As Varon mentioned, the bill was developed through a uniquely open public process. Over the course of several months in 2009 and 2010, citizens were invited to contribute suggestions and criticism to an early draft of the bill using an open online platform. Nearly 2,000 people participated in the process — the bill was substantially revised and re-shaped to reflect public concern. As one popular meme (below) put it, the Marco Civil “does not belong to a [political] party. It belongs to Brazilians.”

Marco Civil poster. "Marco Civil da Internet = Liberty, Neutrality, Privacy". Image by Avaaz, used with permission.

Marco Civil poster. “Marco Civil da Internet = Liberty, Neutrality, Privacy.” Image by @MarcoCivil via Twitter.

Driven by public interest, as opposed to the interests of businesses or government, the Marco Civil could have a revolutionary effect on the current Internet policy environment. Nevertheless, concerns about certain aspects of the bill were still prevalent among activists and even supporters.

Joao Carlos Caribe, one of the bill’s most vociferous early supporters and critical player in grassroots mobilization around digital rights issues in the country, pointed out shortly after the vote that the final text had yet to be made public. In recent months, Caribe has voiced concern about potential concessions to service providers and the interests of law enforcement.

The Snowden revelations had a significant impact on the bill’s progress in recent months and on privacy and security provisions in the bill, which have changed substantially in recent deliberations. One draft stipulated that foreign Internet companies holding data that pertained to Brazilian citizens would be required to store that data locally — apart from the technological concerns this idea raised, it also raised significant fears that the bill would threaten privacy.

This provision has since been removed and is not included in the version of the bill that was passed today. Nevertheless, concern remains about a provision requiring ISPs to store user data for six months following its generation. Brazil’s Pirate Party likened this to an NSA-like mechanism.

Varon called this the most problematic aspect of the law. “We are practically obliging companies to store data,” she said, “while on the other hand we are limiting companies that would like to invest in privacy-friendly services.”

Ronaldo Lemos, a renowned legal scholar in Brazil and the leader of the bill’s collaborative drafting process, addressed the issue as well.

“The data retention article is not ideal,” he said, “but it is an improvement to the current situation in Brazil, where there is no specific rules and service providers retain data sometimes up to 5 years. Now access to data depends on a prior court order, and data can be retained by a maximum of 6 months to application providers and 1 year to access providers.”

Both say there’s still much work to be done to counter these problems in the law. But on the whole, they believe the outlook for user rights in Brazil is very strong.

In a moment when censorship, surveillance, corporate greed and government corruption seem to dominate the world of digital rights, a victory like this one can bring hope to those working to improve user protections worldwide. Lemos offered a word of advice to colleagues facing similar battles around the world: “Know where you want to get to, and hang on,” he said. “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”



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