Privately owned social media platforms have increasingly been accused of infringing on peoples’ right to free speech, so much so that on September 6 2021 Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro banned all social networks from deleting certain posts made by Brazilian citizens on their platforms. Brazilians, who represent the fifth largest population of social media users worldwide, will now be free to post whatever they like on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for the next 120 days as long as they do not fall under certain limited categories such as terrorism, inciting violence, sexual crimes and cyberattacks. These platforms can no longer take down content that infringes on this new law, until the Brazilian congress will be given the chance to vote either for or against this ban in 4 months time.
The move, though considered a retaliation for many of Bolsonaro’s own previously-deleted posts on Covid-19, is getting massive support in other countries across the Atlantic. Barely two days after the announcement, Kanchan Gupta, a senior adviser to the Indian government, took to twitter in support of Brazil, stating that “Social media platforms cannot deplatform inconvenient voices. In effect, this is cancelling cancel culture.” His comment relates to a tweet made by the Indian Government a few days earlier: “The Brazilian government is taking the global lead in defending free speech on social networks and protecting the right of citizens to freedom of thought and expression.” Brazil’s decision is also in line with the decision of the Polish government a few months ago to draw up a bill to curb the powers of large social networks to delete content or ban accounts. This came a few days after they referred to YouTube and Twitter’s suspension of Donald Trump’s social media accounts as an instance of big tech overreach. Former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt recently described this type of ‘cancel culture’ by American social media giants as “arbitrary penalties”. Many countries - including Nigeria, which permanently banned Twitter in early June for deleting a post by the president threatening secessionist groups in the country’s southeastern regions - agree that social media companies have become too powerful.
In order for the tech giants to delete any posts within the next 120 days, aside from those which fall under the aforementioned categories, they must obtain a court ruling. A violation of this rule could tilt votes against them when the Brazilian congress eventually meets to decide the continuity of the ban. Carlos Affonso Souza, a law professor at Rio de Janeiro State University, commented: “You can only imagine how hard it would be for a big platform to get a judicial order for every single piece of disinformation they find.” Meaning that social media companies, if they are to continue enforcing their policies, must have the court on standby, which is extremely difficult if not impossible in a country like Brazil. Just like in Mexico, many Brazilian conservatives, who often support Bolsonaro, believe social companies have become too big to regulate themselves and prefer that the government should be in charge of censoring content that appears on them. However, others like Javier Pallero, the Argentina-based policy director for the digital rights group Access Now, believe “The rules are bad news for Brazil [and] ties the hands of internet platforms to deal with hate speech, disinformation campaigns and coordinated harassment.” Javier’s perspective is also supported by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. In an interview with Time, he said: “There are many politicians across the world, including in the United States and Europe, who are actively pushing that private platform companies should not be allowed to take down anything unless they can show that it’s illegal.” He added that the decision by the Brazilian President is a political decision moving in the direction of an Internet with even more vitriol and toxicity.
While some may be concerned that this new decree could be an omen for the future of the Internet in many other countries, thousands of Bolsonaro’s supporters, who took to the streets on Tuesday in the country’s capital, cheered on their president and likely candidate for Brazil’s October 2022 Presidential Elections. Tech companies have gone on to say that the adopted rules will hinder the ability to limit abuse on their platforms and “undermine the values and consensus” that the country’s Internet framework was built upon. Without criticising the ban, however, YouTube said it will closely analyse how the new Brazilian rules would impact the way the company regulates content in the country and further emphasised: “We’ll continue to make clear the importance of our policies, and the risks for our users and creators if we can’t enforce them.”
Altogether, it is clear that social media companies are powerful because of their many users, however, their power to limit free speech is mostly limited to content that violates their terms and conditions. It would be irresponsible for these companies to tolerate the spread of misleading news and crime-provoking messages on their platforms without interference, even from government officials. Yet it also makes sense that most governments concerned with the growing power of social media companies wish to use these platforms without fear of censorship to sway public support in their favour. Companies like Facebook have often been forced to defend their policies and may continue to do so for years to come.