Brazil close to its own “Constitution for the Internet”

The Internet has certainly changed all our lives in the past 15 years, but is the web ready for its own constitution? One major nation thinks so, and it’s moving toward a vote to establish an Internet Bill of Rights for its citizens.

800px-Dilma_Rousseff_in_UN_2012In Brazil, there is now considerable debate over the Marco Civil da Internet, a bill in that country’s Congress that will define the privacy rights of Internet users and set boundaries against government intrusions.

The bill is far from a done deal, with an intensive debate about Internet neutrality underway, but the Marco Civil has cleared considerable hurdles in recent months, especially in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about United States’ spying on Brazil’s leaders. And this week, the bill passed an important House vote.

The Marco Civil began as an academic-government partnership program in late 2009, as several groups crowd-sourced comments from Brazilian Internet users. After receiving more than 800 suggestions, a draft bill made its way to the nation’s legislature in 2011, where the Justice Ministry labeled it as “the Constitution of the Internet.”

There, the bill languished until Snowden’s revelations rocked Brazil’s leadership, including President Dilma Rousseff, last year. Rousseff made the bill a priority last fall, but she ran into considerable opposition from telecommunications companies and Internet providers.

The bill’s supporters also made a major language change in November that required any Internet company doing business in Brazil, including giants like Google and Facebook, to keep any data on Brazilian citizens at sites within the country. Google immediately warned that such changes in Brazil and other countries would cost it billions of dollars.

Last week, Rousseff relented about the local data hosting requirement for foreign companies, removing one significant hurdle. However, these international companies would still be subject to Brazil’s laws in lawsuits about Internet data.

The current battle is one that is very familiar to people who follow technology and the law in the United States: network neutrality. This involves the ability of telecom companies or a government agency to regulate who receives Internet data faster or slower than other users. In addition to the telecom providers, Rousseff reportedly wants a hand in determining net neutrality rules after the bill passes.

Aside from the net neutrality fight, the bill’s remaining sections resemble a mini-constitution or Bill of Rights.

The Marco Civil guarantees freedom of expression on the Internet, a right to privacy and safeguards against government surveillance. The bill also got some important support this week when it was endorsed by Internet founder Sir Tim Berners-Lee. He has objected to Rousseff’s data-storage plan for international companies.

“Commendably, the Bill has among its foundations the guarantee of human rights such as privacy, of citizenship and the preservation of the diversity and the social purpose of the web,” he said in a statement.

In an English translation of the bill from November 2013,  the bill also seeks to  “promote every person’s right to access the Internet,” to recognize “the inviolability of intimacy and privacy,” and  protect “the inviolability and secrecy of private communications stored, except by court order.”

For now, the Marco Civil’s fate seems to hinge on a net neutrality compromise. Rousseff wants the issue decided by April and the country faces a considerable task in hosting the soccer World Cup in June, which could also task its Internet infrastructure.

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