It’s not Internet behemoths China or India, with their billion-plus populations of potential Web surfers, grabbing for it. It’s Brazil, which is positioning itself as an increasingly powerful voice in the international debate over the future of the Web, post Edward Snowden’s U.S. spying revelations (incidentally, Snowden’s chief ally in the media, Glenn Greenwald, makes his home in Rio). It’s backed there by a fast growing and active population of Internet users, seasoned tech entrepreneurs and policy wonks, and a populist vision somewhere between America’s corporate approach and China’s state-controlled take on the Web.
What Brazil wants: Privacy, free speech and other protections for its booming population of Internet users, guarantees that the Internet will remain open and unchecked by governments (like China or America’s NSA) or companies (largely based in the United States) and more resources to expand access to a more diverse and low-income crop of users.
Those are the issues at the heart of “Internet governance” that have provoked heated debates over personal liberties, national security and billion-dollar bottom lines.
As Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff boiled it down at NETmundial, the international conference her government convened in São Paulo in April: “An open and decent network architecture … helps make communications more democratic and also fosters constant innovation.” Nothing less than the future of the World Wide Web is at stake, argued Rousseff.
Ad-hockery has ruled the multinational bodies tasked with setting the basic rules of the road for how servers connect and how information flows. And global rulemaking has taken on a distinctly American accent, a “multistakeholder” model that includes lots of private sector influence.
The Internet has changed a lot since the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia tried to reduce American dominance, and Internet policy experts say the world now faces another inflection point on the way forward.
In Brazil, Internet use since the Tunisia Summit has roughly tripled, now closing in on 100 million people. More than half of Brazilians over the age of 13 have Internet access, well ahead of fellow emerging markets India and China, according to the consulting firm McKinsey and Company. And they’re active — particularly on social media, ranking among the top nationalities of users on Facebook and Twitter.
Brazilians have civil society activists to thank for the advanced state of their Internet. This group of tech geeks rallied as early as 1992 to help bring order to the nascent online universe, says Raquel Gatto, a Web expert at the nonprofit Internet Society in São Paulo. In 1995, they joined with the national government to form the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee, with a board made up of government ministers, tech experts, business executives and rights activists. The committee manages the .br domain registry, promotes infrastructure and access projects and helps Brazil speak as one powerful voice internationally.
But it was Snowden’s exposé of America’s online snooping, including taps on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, that has galvanized Brazil’s Internet community to push for more developing-world say.
It started with Rousseff’s scorching speech to the United Nations General Assembly last September. But Brazil’s proven more than a scold. In coordination with the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), a non-governmental body that helps maintain the technical architecture of the Web, Rousseff launched plans for NETmundial last fall, with the aim of establishing “universal Internet principles and an institutional framework for multistakeholder Internet governance.”
Western governments and much of the U.S. tech industry feared the event would devolve into another round of America and rich-world bashing, but the outcome was roundly hailed as a positive, if nebulous, contribution to the discussion — even by the U.S. policymakers and corporations that took part.
The Marco Civil institutes strict regulations for storing user data for any companies with Brazilian users, even if they’re in the United States.
“Brazil has traditionally had a different take” than the United States on who the lead Internet policy decision makers should be, says Adam Segal, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. But what came out of the conference, beyond expressions of universally espoused principles, says Segal, was “a pretty strong embrace of the [U.S.-backed] multistakeholder model.”
Of course, Brazil’s not just lining up behind the United States on how to oversee the Internet of the future.
The same day Rousseff welcomed delegates to NETmundial, she signed a new domestic law, the Marco Civil or “Internet Bill of Rights,” which guarantees, among other things, a right to privacy online and “net neutrality” regarding the speed at which information travels over the Web. It also, controversially, institutes strict regulations for storing user data for any companies with Brazilian users, even if, say, they’re in the United States.
Already, says Gatto, the Brazilian government is consulting with others around the world about implementing their own versions of the law.
With a flurry of international conferences on the subject slated for coming months, they’ll have a chance to test their leadership further. In September, the issues will come up at the United Nations General Assembly and the U.N.-sponsored Internet Governance Forum annual conference in Istanbul, and again in October at a gathering of the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union in South Korea. Next year Brazil will host the IGF on home turf.
With NETmundial and Marco Civil in the rearview mirror, Brazilians feel more confident than ever that they have a special role to play in the future of the Internet.
Domestic experience, says Gatto, has given the country “solid grounds to leverage at the international level.” It just took a catalyst by the name of Edward Snowden, she says, to galvanize action.
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