Bolsonaro’s ban on removing social media posts is overturned in Brazil
By Jack Nicas
Brazil’s Senate and Supreme Court have nullified rules that President Jair Bolsonaro issued last week banning social networks from removing what they judge to be disinformation about the coming presidential election.
The dual moves by the court and by Congress late Tuesday quickly killed one of the most restrictive and intrusive internet laws imposed in a democratic country. It was a sharp rebuke to a president already struggling with a series of political crises.
When Bolsonaro issued the policy, it was the first time a national government had moved to stop social media companies from taking down content that violates their rules.
The move alarmed technology companies and Bolsonaro’s political opponents because it appeared intended to enable the president and his allies to undermine confidence in next year’s presidential election.
In recent months, Bolsonaro has used social media to spread claims that the only way he will lose the election is if the vote is rigged. Such claims would have been protected under the emergency measure Bolsonaro issued last week, which gave social media companies 30 days to comply.
But in quick succession on Tuesday, the Supreme Court suspended the rules from going into effect, while the president of the Brazil Senate effectively shelved them.
“It’s a very positive sign that the Brazilian political class reacted,” said Mauricio Santoro, a professor of international relations at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. “The Brazilian leadership is finally understanding how important the internet is to political life in Brazil.”
Bolsonaro relied on the internet to help him become president in 2018, using social networks to spread his brand of right-wing populism. Now, faced with crises that include the pandemic, corruption investigations and sinking poll numbers, he is turning again to social media — this time to try to save his presidency.
In posts and videos across the internet, Bolsonaro has attacked the Supreme Court, touted unproven cures for the coronavirus and called for nationwide protests against his political enemies. Social media companies removed some of his posts about the coronavirus.
Then last week, on the eve of nationwide protests, he issued a so-called provisional measure, a type of emergency order intended to address urgent situations. Under the policy, social media companies could remove only posts containing certain types of content, like nudity, the encouragement of crime or the violation of copyright. To take down other posts, companies had to get a court order.
The Bolsonaro government also set limits on the ability of social media companies to remove user accounts, potentially protecting Bolsonaro from the fate suffered by his political ally, former President Donald Trump. Trump had his megaphone shut off earlier this year when the major social networks barred him from their sites.
Social media companies assailed the new rules, saying they would allow misinformation to spread. On Wednesday, a Twitter spokesperson praised the actions by the Senate and Supreme Court, saying the Bolsonaro policy “undermines the values and consensus” of Brazilian internet laws. Facebook and YouTube declined to comment.
Bolsonaro’s government did not respond to a request for comment.
Brazil’s Supreme Court has been investigating disinformation operations in the country, and Bolsonaro became a target of those investigations last month. One member of the court, Justice Alexandre de Moraes, has jailed several of the president’s supporters for allegedly funding or inciting violence or anti-democratic acts.
Bolsonaro has called these arrests politically motivated, and Moraes was a target of nationwide protests by the president’s supporters this month.
In the United States, conservative politicians have sought to pass similar laws, part of their larger battle with Silicon Valley over what they see as technology companies’ censorship of right-wing voices.
Florida passed a law in May that sought to block social networks from removing political candidates from their sites, but a federal judge blocked it a month later. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a similar law last week.
The rules issued by Bolsonaro faced long odds.
Such provisional measures expire in 120 days unless Brazil’s Congress makes them permanent. Instead, the Senate’s president, Rodrigo Pacheco, sent them back to Bolsonaro in just over a week, effectively killing the measure.
Both the Senate president and the Supreme Court said that the rules should not have been issued as a provisional measure because they were not addressing an urgent situation and because Congress was debating a bill to regulate social networks.
They also said the rules would have been bad for the country, said Carlos Affonso Souza, a professor at Rio de Janeiro State University who specializes in internet law. “There was a whole worry that the online environment could get more toxic and more dangerous,” he said.
Affonso Souza said the Senate’s decision restricted Bolsonaro from issuing the same rules this year, but he could try again in 2022.
Given the presidential election next year, and Bolsonaro’s low poll numbers, Santoro said he expected the president to try something else to ensure he can continue to use the internet to spread his message.
“He’s not going to quit this fight that easily,” he said. “The internet is very important to him.”