First France, Now Brazil Unveils Plan to Empower the Government to Censor the Internet in the Name of Stopping “Fake News”


by Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept:

YESTERDAY AFTERNOON, THE official Twitter account of Brazil’s Federal Police (its FBI equivalent) posted an extraordinary announcement. The bureaucratically nonchalant tone it used belied its significance. The tweet, at its core, purports to vest in the federal police and the federal government that oversees it the power to regulate, control, and outright censor political content on the internet that is assessed to be “false,” and to “punish” those who disseminate it. The new power would cover both social media posts and entire websites devoted to politics.

“In the next few days, the Federal Police will begin activities in Brasília [the nation’s capital] by a specially formed group to combat false news during the [upcoming 2018 presidential] election process,” the official police tweet stated. It added: “The measures are intended to identify and punish the authors of ‘fake news’ for or against candidates.” Top police officials told media outlets that their working group would include representatives of the judiciary’s election branch and leading prosecutors, though one of the key judicial figures involved is the highly controversial right-wing Supreme Court judge, Gilmar Mendes, who has long blurred judicial authority with his political activism.

Among the most confounding aspects of the Twitter announcement is that it is very difficult to identify any existing law that actually authorizes the federal police to exercise the powers they just announced they intend to wield, particularly over the internet. At least as of now, they are claiming for themselves one of the most extremist powers imaginable — the right of the government to control and suppress political content on the internet during an election — with no legal framework to define its parameters or furnish safeguards against abuse.

Proponents of this new internet censorship program have suggested they will seek congressional enactment of a new law to authorize the censorship program and define how it functions. But it is far from clear that Brazil’s dysfunctional Congress — in which a majority of members face corruption charges — will be able to enact a new statutory scheme before the election.

Tellingly, these police officials vow that they will proceed to implement the censorship program even if no new law is enacted. They insist that no new laws are necessary by pointing to a pre-internet censorship lawenacted in 1983 — during the time Brazil was ruled by a brutal military dictatorship that severely limited free expression and routinely imprisoned dissidents.

A top police official just yesterday warned that, absent a new law, they will invoke the authorities of one of the dictatorship era’s most repressive laws: the so-called Law of National Security, which contain deliberately vague passages making it a felony to “spread rumors that caused panic.” Yet he complained that the old dictatorship-era law is inadequate in part because it is too lenient, providing “only” for “months” in prison for those who disseminate “fake news,” which he called a “very low punishment.”

That 1983 legal framework was used by Brazil’s military dictatorship to arrest dissidents, critics, and democracy activists. That they are now eyeing a resurrection of this dictatorship-era censorship law to regulate and censor contemporary political expression on the internet — all in the name of stopping “fake news” — powerfully symbolizes how inherently tyrannical and dangerous are all government attempts to control political expression.

THE MOVE TO obtain new censorship authority over the internet by Brazilian police officials would be disturbing enough standing alone given Brazil’s status as the world’s fifth most populous country and second-largest in the hemisphere. But that Brazil’s announcement closely follows very similar efforts unveiled last week by French President Emmanuel Macron strongly suggests a trend in which governments are now exploiting concerns over “fake news” to justify state control over the internet.

In his New Year’s speech to journalists at the Élysée palace, the French president vowed that his new law would contain some robust transparency obligations for websites — ones for which valid arguments may be assembled. But the crux of the law is censorship: During elections, “an emergency legal action could allow authorities to remove that content or even block the website.” As in Brazil, the new French power would cover social media platforms and traditional media outlets alike, allowing the government through an as-yet-unknown process to simply remove entire political websites from the internet.

Beyond having one’s political content forcibly suppressed by the state, disseminators of “fake news” could face fines of many millions of dollars. Given Macron’s legislature majority, “there is little doubt about its ability to pass,” the Atlantic reports.

Both Brazil and France cited the same purported justification for obtaining censorship powers over the internet: namely, the dangers posed by alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. But no matter how significant one views Russian involvement in the U.S. election, it is extremely difficult to see how — beyond rank fear-mongering — that could justify these types of draconian censorship powers by Brasília and Paris.

There has never been any indication of any remote Russian interest in Brazilian’s domestic elections. The claims from Macron and France during the election that were uncritically believed by Western media outlets — that he was the victim of Russian hacking — turned out to lack any credible evidence, as France’s own cyber security agency concludedafter an investigation. (That same pattern repeated itself in Germany, where vocal warnings about the inevitability of Russian interference in German elections were followed by post-election admissions that there was no evidence of any such thing.)

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