Brazil’s “fake news“ bill poses major threat to freedom to inform
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the withdrawal of a bill to combat “fake news” that could be voted by the Brazilian senate today, because it contains a series of measure that pose a major threat to the freedom to inform and to privacy rights. A new bill that respects international free speech standards should be drafted after extensive public consultation, RSF says.
The proposed “Brazilian Law on Internet Freedom, Responsibility and Transparency” (Draft Law No. 2.630/2020), which has the professed aim of addressing the “fake news industry” in Brazil, has been debated hastily and in exceptional conditions because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It is finally scheduled to go before the senate today after a vote was postponed twice earlier this month as a result of pressure from many civil society groups including RSF and differences among parliamentarians. The bill’s extremely worrying measures include the creation of a system of massive surveillance of Internet users and disproportionate penalties that directly threaten freedom of expression and opinion and respect for online privacy.
Its most disturbing elements include:
- The requirement for all social media and messaging app users to submit identity documents and have an active mobile phone. In practice, this will deprive many Brazilians of access to these basic services.
- The requirement for platforms to store data, and for messaging app providers to store chats and shares, for at least four months. This means that anyone (a journalist, researcher, parliamentarian, ordinary citizen and so on) who shared and/or criticized suspicious content could later have to prove they have no connection with the organizations or individuals who deliberately and massively shared false information.
The goal of these two requirements is to be able to track the origin of disinformation campaigns and to identify and punish those responsible. The tracking of content shared on messaging apps could seriously endanger the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.
The imposition of this surveillance mechanism would force platform and messaging app companies to adopt measures limiting protection for the privacy of those using their services, without guaranteeing that those behind disinformation campaigns could not circumvent these measures.
- Harsher penalties for spreading false information
The criteria used for identifying false information are deliberately vague and are based on overly broad concepts such as “political preference” and threats to “social peace” or “economic order.” This opens the door to disproportionate interpretations and sanctions against legitimate opinions and posts.
- Nationwide blocking of social media and messaging apps that do not comply with the new requirements
Services such as WhatsApp and YouTube were recently suspended by the judicial authorities in Brazil. This is inappropriate and counter-productive, amounting to attempted censorship, and prejudices all users, by denying them access to information.
Blocking messaging apps also hampers the work of journalists, especially those who rely on their encryption technology to protect their sources.
“Instead of being debated in haste, such an important subject as disinformation requires extensive consultation with all the civil society stakeholders involved,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of RSF’s Latin America bureau. “Brazil’s parliamentarians cannot ignore the threat that this bill poses to the future of online freedoms and democracy in general.”
“The insistence with which the senate is trying to pass this bill, while Brazil is badly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and attacks against journalists are intensifying, is very worrying. We call for this bill to be abandoned in its current form and for a proper debate to be held on this subject, in order to get a new bill that respects free speech standards and all Internet users’ right to privacy.”
Regulations of this kind can have very negative consequences. RSF is registering more and more cases of journalists throughout the world who are being prosecuted in the name of combatting online disinformation, when in fact they were just doing their job.
Penalizing “fake news” also amounts to eliminating the right of journalists to make mistakes. Some laws provide for extremely harsh penalties that take no account of journalists’ intentions, that take no account of the fact that journalists sometimes just make mistakes. In all cases, the punishment is not proportional to the information, even when it is false.
To combat online disinformation, RSF recommends that the Brazilian authorities should promote self-regulatory mechanisms such as the Journalism Trust Initiative which encourage adoption of the best journalistic standards and ethics online.
Launched by RSF and its partners, the JTI is a set of standards for reliable journalism with indicators that allow individual media outlets to assess themselves, to improve their practices to satisfy the standards, and to publish their evaluation results. The standards range from transparency of media ownership and revenue sources to correction procedures and other good practices.
Platforms can incorporate the JTI’s machine-readable standards as an “integrity factor” into their algorithms. Search engine and social media algorithms are based on many factors but not, at this time, on compliance with editorial practices and basic journalistic principles.
Brazil is ranked 107th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.