July 2, 2020

Brazilian fact-checkers said a bill passed Tuesday intended to combat disinformation will create a massive surveillance network and make it more difficult to do their work.

“The Brazilian Law on Freedom, Responsibility and Transparency on the Internet” would require messaging platforms like WhatsApp to keep a database of highly forwarded messages for up to three months. The database would be accessible by a court order, and proponents argue it’s key to both tracking the spread of disinformation and holding disinformers accountable. 

The bill also requires Brazilians to show photo identification to access their social media accounts, makes tech companies liable for false information spread on their platforms, and creates a politically appointed “Council of Best Practices” to define concepts like misinformation and disinformation. Tai Nalon, founder of Brazilian fact-checking organization Aos Fatos, said the bill doesn’t adequately define the government’s authority — making it vulnerable to abuse. 

“If you’re a researcher, if you are a politician, if you are a regular person who wants to engage with verified content … you might be targeted for engaging in whatever an authority feels that might be against its honor,” Nalon said. 

Natália Leal, content director at fact-checking network Agência Lupa, added the council could potentially regulate fact-checkers by creating a government definition for fact-checking, or raising official doubts about the importance of their work. She cited an incorrect assertion by bill supporter Sen. Angelo Coronel, who claimed that fact-checking labels attached to stories on social media platforms like Facebook are matters of opinion rather than the product of journalistic review. 

“This statement demonstrates the total ignorance of Brazilian legislators about the work of fact-checkers against disinformation,” Leal said.  

The bill comes two years after Brazilian elections where voters were inundated with misinformation spread through messaging apps like WhatsApp. In an Instagram post Tuesday, bill author Sen. Alessandro Vieira said his legislation is a first step to protecting Brazilian democracy on the internet.

“Most Brazilians asked for legislation that regulates the performance of social networks, preventing fake accounts and networks of unidentified robots,” his post read. He elaborated in a post Wednesday the bill seeks to increase transparency from social media companies to cut down on the spread of false information. 

Daniel Bramatti, editor of fact-checking organization Estadão Verifica, said the bill’s database requirement still poses a threat to data privacy.

“Some politicians want to be able to track the origins of some viral content, but this can affect privacy and ultimately impact the free flow of information,” Bramatti said. 

Caio Machado, a researcher at Brazil’s Center for the Analysis of Liberty and Authoritarianism, said the government’s ability to trace social media communications would make it easy to surveil journalists and activists. 

“You can find the whole chain of interactions of people and the content they’re sharing,” Machado said, adding there’s a potential for a chilling effect, because the bill makes tech companies responsible for taking down the accounts of anyone deemed to be spreading disinformation. 

In a statement to the International Fact-Checking Network, a Facebook spokesperson said the bill, “compromises the operation of internet applications in Brazil, at a time when the majority of people in the country depend on them to stay connected during the pandemic.” The statement went on to reiterate the company’s support for fighting misinformation, and called for, “a broad debate,” on the legislation to avoid impacting free speech and privacy. 

Francisco Brito Cruz, director of Brazilian research center InternetLab, said the two-month process of drafting and passing the bill was rushed and excluded input from legal and technical experts. 

“To have an effective, rights centered, and technically functional legislation, we need to have time to discuss the proposals,” he said. He contrasted the current bill with its 2014 predecessor called “The Civil Rights Framework for the Internet,” That bill, which established standards for data privacy and net neutrality, was crafted over a three-year period. 

Cruz further argued the bill’s requirement social media users submit photo identification to access their accounts could prevent many low-income Brazilians from access to social media. 

“Some people are undocumented, some people don’t have a cell number,” he said arguing these requirements will crack down on participation rather than disinformation. Machado said presenting a photo I.D. doesn’t guarantee the identity of the user, and makes tech platforms a target for online hacking.

“The main social media companies are sitting on this huge batch of sensitive data, which might inevitably be leaked,” Machado said.

The bill moves from the Senate to the Chamber of Deputies. If no amendments are added, the bill will be sent to President Jair Bolsonaro for final approval. 

 

Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering fact-checking and misinformation. Reach him at hmantas@poynter.org or on Twitter at @HarrisonMantas

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Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering the wide world of misinformation. He previously worked in Arizona and Washington D.C. for…
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