from Asia Unbound

Blair Rapalyea: Brazil, Internet Freedom, and Foreign Surveillance

July 31, 2013

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff reacts during a meeting of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia on February 6, 2013. (Ueslei Marcelino/Courtesy Reuters)
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Several previous posts have covered China’s reaction to PRISM, the NSA’s surveillance program revealed by Edward Snowden. While Brazil usually falls outside of Asia Unbound’s coverage, this guest post by Blair Rapalyea, an intern for the Cybersecurity and Cyberconflict Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations, shows how another emerging Internet power is reacting. There are some notable similarities—a focus on domestic technology and a look to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to play a greater role in Internet governance—but also some important differences as Brazil champions individual and Internet rights.

While China’s boisterous reaction to PRISM and its vocal condemnation of the perceived “double standards” of the NSA surveillance program has received wide coverage in the U.S. press, less discussed is the response from Brazil, a country with a massive and increasingly important Internet presence. PRISM has added to an already full agenda. Brazilian politicians were already struggling to respond to public outcry for the protection of Internet rights and privacy; now they must also respond to growing demands to protect Brazilian cyberspace from foreign surveillance.

The suggestions for addressing the problem of espionage are varied. The NSA leak came at a time when Brazil had revived discussion of a document called “Marco Civil da Internet,” billed as human rights legislation for Internet users. Created largely through public input, the goal of the legislation is to protect individuals by defining the right to privacy, web neutrality, and freedom of speech. The bill stalled in Congress for two years, largely due to opposition from telecommunications companies, but has been revitalized by concern over unwanted surveillance.

The espionage claims have reenergized the debate over Marco Civil and also strengthened the argument that Brazil needs to take greater control over the infrastructure its Internet depends upon. Politicians have advocated for this through additions to the bill, whereas other potential measures would be executed outside the framework of the legislation. One initiative, for example, proposes that Brazil reduce its use of foreign software and hardware so as to lower the risk of future espionage. Brazil has a robust information technology (IT) sector, and officials hope that decreasing dependence on foreign technology would give their IT and manufacturing sectors an additional boost. Another proposal would address the vulnerability in Brazil’s fiber optic cables and satellites—documents leaked by Snowden allegedly show they were compromised by the NSA. Politicians have called for a new Brazilian satellite to allow for greater control. In addition, some have suggested the construction of data centers in the country, which they believe would make data from Brazil subject only to their own jurisdiction and allow for greater protections . However, this measure will be largely ineffective unless it also requires all foreign servers to delete data coming from Brazil – a massive undertaking that is unlikely to be achieved due to cost and opposition from affected businesses. The provision for data storage has been added to the Marco Civil legislation at the behest of high-level politicians. This drew backlash from Google, which had previously supported the text, because it would require them to invest in building data centers the company sees as unnecessary.

NSA revelations have also increased calls for reforming Internet governance. Brazil has previously voiced support for regulations allowing for greater government control, such as those debated in the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and many politicians are now revisiting the subject. At a recent meeting of Mercosur, a South American trade bloc of which Brazil is a founding member, discussion ranged from member country Venezuela’s decision to offer Snowden asylum to future possibilities for regulation of the Internet. Brazil’s Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota said that although Mercosur members intend to raise the debate in the United Nations, specifically in the ITU, he has little faith in the possibility of consensus on future regulation.

The reaction to PRISM only adds to the swirl of confusion surrounding the quest to define what Internet freedom means in Brazil. Like many of the other democracies criticizing American surveillance, Brazil restricts some information on the Internet and monitors activity for security and stability. Brazil created its own cybersecurity military unit, CDCiber, which was charged with monitoring the Internet during the recent Confederations Cup as well as working with the police during the recent protests, though officials have stated that all information was gathered from public sources.

All of the above, combined with the recent proposals for increased national control of cyberspace, suggest that Brazil is at a turning point in terms of how it will define the future of its Internet, and that the next few months will determine the path forward.