Brazil’s ‘fake news’ bill sparks outcry from tech giants

Major tech companies are campaigning against legislation, prompting backlash from Brazilian justice minister and courts.

Flávio Dino points against a blue backdrop
Brazil’s Justice Minister Flavio Dino issued an ultimatum for Google to remove messaging against the 'fake news' bill from its Brazilian search engine [File: Amanda Perobelli/Reuters]

Brazil’s Congress is weighing a regulatory bill that would shift the burden onto internet companies to report illegal content on their sites, a controversial initiative that has pitted the administration of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva against major tech companies such as Google.

On Tuesday, Google was forced to remove a link on its home page in Brazil that advocated against Bill 2630, also known as the Fake News Law.

The link alleged that the bill would stir public confusion and called on users to contact their congressional representatives to speak out against the legislation.

The Brazilian proposal, which would create penalties for tech companies that fail to crack down on fake news and other illegal materials on their platforms, would be among the strictest legislation governing social media and other content-hosting websites.

It has been compared to the European Union’s Digital Services Act, adopted last year to regulate major tech companies and create standards for transparency and content moderation.

Protesters outside Brazil's congress place signs and backpacks on the grass to represent children killed in school attacks
Protesters place signs that read, ‘Protect our children. Regulate the social networks’, outside Brazil’s Congress as it considers a bill to regulate internet platforms [File: Eraldo Peres/AP Photo]

But companies like Google and Facebook have warned that Brazil’s Bill 2630 could be used for censorship and might endanger the availability of free content services.

In a statement to CNN Brasil on Tuesday, Google also argued that the bill presented “risks” to “the people who use our platforms and also to the different participants in the digital ecosystem”.

It said the bill had “undergone significant changes in recent weeks”, leading to a lack of awareness about its contents.

Google’s message on its home page prompted a fierce response from Justice Minister Flavio Dino, who accused the tech giant of trying to stifle debate.

He demanded that the link be removed within two hours, or else Google would face a fine of one million Brazilian reais, or $198,000, for every hour the messaging remained online. “What is this? An editorial? This is not a media or an advertising company,” Dino said.

Google responded by removing the link within minutes, drawing applause from Dino on Twitter. “Google has removed the coded and illegal advertising from its home page,” he wrote. “The LAW must prevail over the digital Wild West.”

He has previously called for an investigation into whether tech companies engaged in “abusive practices” in their campaign against the law.

A Google sign on a window at its headquarters in Mountain View, California
Google has campaigned against the Brazilian bill seeking to impose stronger regulations on internet platforms [File: Jose Sanchez/AP Photo]

Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes issued an order later on Tuesday requiring the Brazilian leaders of major tech companies to give testimony to federal police about possible misinformation spread about the bill.

They included the heads of Google, the social media giant Meta, the music streamer Spotify and Brasil Paralelo, a conservative content website.

Bill’s fate unclear

The debate in Brazil comes as the South American nation continues to grapple with unfounded claims about the legitimacy of its electoral system, particularly in the wake of former far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s loss in an election last year.

Bolsonaro had for months falsely claimed that Brazil’s electronic voting system was vulnerable to fraud, an allegation that spread rapidly amongst his supporters on social media.

Critics also say the former army captain’s rhetoric fuelled a riot in the capital Brasilia on January 8, when a mob of pro-Bolsonaro protesters stormed Brazil’s Supreme Court, Congress and presidential palace in a bid to overturn the October election results.

The fake-news bill had been fast-tracked in the lower house of Congress and was due to be voted on later on Tuesday. Its fate is uncertain, however, due to resistance from conservative and Evangelical lawmakers who have sided with big tech firms against the government and its allies.

Representative Orlando Silva, an author of Bill 2630 and member of Brazil’s Communist Party, told the Reuters news agency that the proposed legislation would help protect against misinformation that could adversely affect Brazilian politics.

The country also has endured a series of deadly attacks at schools, with critics pointing to the influence of social media in the violence.

In late March, a 13-year-old student stabbed a teacher to death in Sao Paulo, after allegedly being inspired by an earlier school shooting in 2019. Then, in early April, a man attacked a daycare with an axe, killing four young children.

“Fake news led to the storming of government buildings on January 8 and has caused an environment of violence in our schools,” Silva told Reuters.

The debate over the proposed law comes after a Brazilian appeals court on Saturday lifted a suspension against the messaging service Telegram, after it was accused of failing to comply with a request to hand over information about extremists and neo-Nazis on the platform.

The court upheld a fine against Telegram for failing to fulfill the information request, however.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies