Brazil’s Statute of Virtual Liberty

RIO DE JANEIRO – It seems like the plot of a horror movie – the type where a little-noticed glitch in the matrix threatens to cause global chaos. This time, it was a simple, but fateful, programming misstep that suddenly left millions of consumers’ most sensitive information vulnerable to hackers. News headlines screamed about online dangers that we could barely understand, alerting swarms of digital pirates to a bounty of new criminal opportunities. Companies worldwide scrambled to secure their online safety.

The story of the so-called “Heartbleed” bug, however, is all too real. It points to a stark truth: In a shockingly short time, we have become completely dependent on the Internet, a frontier we are only beginning to comprehend, let alone map and regulate. Important debates – such as freedom versus security, privacy versus piracy, and cyberspace’s impact on democracy – are far from being resolved.

Yet fears over Heartbleed and similar such threats, and the furor surrounding the aggressive American surveillance tactics revealed by former intelligence contractor Edward J. Snowden, have already put many countries in a defensive posture. In many places, efforts to protect Internet freedom have been stymied.

But, as my home country, Brazil, has shown, a different path is possible. Brazil’s House of Representatives has passed a genuine Internet “Bill of Rights,” which was unanimously approved by the senate and signed into law by President Dilma Rousseff last week – much to the delight of civil-society advocates.

The legislation, widely described as an Internet constitution, seeks to safeguard online freedom of expression and limit government collection and usage of Internet users’ metadata. The bill ensures “net neutrality” (meaning that Internet service providers must treat all information and users equally), and subjects global companies, such as Google and Facebook, to Brazilian law and precedent in cases involving its own citizens.

Inspiration for Brazil’s embrace of Internet freedom stemmed in part from US President Barack Obama’s historic election campaign in 2008. By tapping millions of small donations through social networking sites, he revolutionized election fundraising and seemed to open up new horizons for democracy and civic engagement.

But not everyone was convinced. A wave of legislation – criminalizing various types of Internet use, such as music sharing, and allowing greater government surveillance – appeared to be turning back the liberal tide. In Brazil, too, the authorities acquired greater control over the Internet, as the country moved to the forefront of the international fight against cybercrime.

The situation started to change in 2009, after Brazil’s then-president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, participated in an Internet freedom event, and vowed afterwards to block any legislation restricting online freedoms. He also pledged to submit the bill that resulted in the newly adopted law.

Interestingly, the bill was not drafted by the usual cast of bureaucrats. Instead, the process was opened up to the public, with ordinary citizens allowed to contribute via a government blog. Advocates of free software mixed it up with law enforcers and lobbyists from the likes of Google and Yahoo, in a pioneering example of “wiki-democracy.”

In 2011, after two years of debate and discussion, a draft bill was sent to Congress. Opposition was fierce. Lobbyists sought to water down the proposed legislation, with telecommunications companies particularly opposed to its net-neutrality provisions.

Nevertheless, the coalition of forces backing the bill – civil-society groups supported by a 350,000-strong petition organized by legendary Brazilian musician and former Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil – overcame traditional political interests. In the process, they seem to have ushered in a new model of lawmaking.

Elsewhere in the world, however, developments have moved in a different direction. Obama’s electoral afterglow dimmed. The Internet-inspired uprisings in Iran and then in much of the Arab world were brutally crushed. New revelations about government surveillance, together with Heartbleed-type security scares, continue to test the world’s faith in online freedom.

Yet, despite the fears – and the dangers inherent in a free Internet – the world must not give up exploring the transformative potential of cyberspace. Those who are losing their resolve need to only look south, where Brazil is leading the way.