May 29, 2017

The State of Connectivity in Latin America: from Mobile Phones to Tablets

Ten years ago, issues like e-health, e-education and e-government were more products of wishful thinking than ideas with a real possibility of being implemented in most Latin American countries. Conversely, the present moment has become a turning point for the region in terms of connectivity. Government policies, markets and non-profit initiatives are contributing to improve the overall connectivity in the region.

By 2012 98% of the population in the region had access to a mobile cell signal and 84% of households subscribe to some type of mobile service, according to a World Bank report. This rather quick expansion of ICTs in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) caught many intellectual property and access to knowledge scholars and practitioners unprepared. While they were still considering hypothetical models for deploying and using information and communication technologies (ICTs), a significant portion of the region’s population was already putting in practice innovative uses to newly available technology, and going beyond expectations in terms of self-organization and empowerment.
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Brazil is the only BRIC country standing ground on Internet Freedom. Here is why.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published a piece covering a new report launched by OECD calling member-countries to “promote and protect the global free flow of information”. The article lists three BRIC-members, China, India and Russia, as examples of countries taking actions harmful to online freedom. One BRIC member is missing from the list: Brazil. Despite hiccups, Brazil has been taking a strong position for protecting freedom and other civil rights online. Why is that?

One reason is that Brazil is a rather young democracy. From 1964 to 1985 the country was governed by a military regime, which imposed strict censorship rules. Major artists, newspapers, and tv networks had to submit their activities to prior approval by a censorship board. When democracy was reestablished in 1986, censorship was eliminated, but the trauma of 20 years of repression had been painfully imprinted in the Brazilian society. This trauma has made Brazil very sensitive to new threats of censorship, in its many forms.

Another landmark was a decision taken by the country’s Supreme Court in 2009. The court struck down the Press Law, adopted in 1967 by the military government (the same law that had established censorship). When the country was re-democratized, the censorship articles were revoked. Nonetheless, other parts regulating libel, defamation and the “right of reply” survived. The court decided to strike everything down (in spite of a heated debate claiming that the remaining articles were reasonable), stating the law was incompatible with the freedom of expression clause of the Brazilian constitution.

Another factor is that president Dilma Rousseff has been taking a public stance in favor of freedom of expression. It makes sense. In the 1960s, she was imprisoned and tortured during the military regime for participating in a dissident group. Unswervingly, she declared at a recent human rights conference that she “prefers the noise of the press to the silence of the dictatorship”.

Moreover, Brazil has a vigorous civil society, which emerged especially with the country’s new democratic constitution in 1988. Many civil society organizations are concerned with online freedom issues, including consumer associations, artists groups, newspapers and journalists associations, NGOs for education, free and open source software organizations, the academia, lawyers and judges associations, to name a few. Their claims have been taken into account by the political system. Government and Congress in Brazil remain permeable to the civil society. Even if lobbying and special interests do exist and exercise strong influence, it is rather difficult for politicians to save face for policies flagrantly against the public interest.

The strength of civil society reinforced Brazil’s commitment to internet freedom and also led to concrete policy-making. One example is the Marco Civil (“Civil Rights Framework for the Internet”), a draft bill seeking to protect civil rights online, such as freedom of expression and privacy, and to create balanced rules for the liability of internet intermediaries.

The bill is the result of a two-year online debate open to the public at-large. The process was put together by the Ministry of Justice and the Center for Technology & Society, a research center in Rio de Janeiro (full disclosure – I am the director of the Center for Technology & Society, and was involved in the Marco Civil process). The bill was sent to Congress by the Federal government in 2011, with co-sponsorship of five Ministries. Marco Civil has become a well-known issue in the Brazilian public sphere, and it has gathered strong public support. Approval is expected sometime in 2012.

Internationally, some view Marco Civil as an alternative approach to SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), the bill currently in discussion in Congress in the US, under strong criticism. While SOPA tilts the balance of the law in the direction of expedite enforcement, by-passing the judiciary in favor of a private notice-and-takedown system, Marco Civil supports a more balanced approach. It seeks to translate the principles established by the Brazilian Constitution into online practices, paying especial attention to due process, freedom of expression, and the protection of an environment favorable to innovation. Because of that, some also view Marco Civil as a counterpoint to ACTA, the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, criticized for potentially harming fundamental rights.

Of course the situation in Brazil is not all roses. The Brazilian Ministry of Culture has changed its policies in the beginning of 2011. Under the guidance of the new Minister Ana de Hollanda (claimed to have close ties to the controversial copyright collecting society in Brazil – ECAD – which is currently under investigation for fraud by by a special Congressional Inquiry Commission) has been trying to introduce legislation in Congress for creating a private systems for removing online content, inspired in part by the DMCA. This effort and other actions of the Ministry have raised vast waves of criticism, both by civil society and also by many sectors in the government´s party.

These hiccups, nevertheless, do not change the fact that, for now, Brazil seems to be committed to protect internet freedom against all odds. That is a good way of taking the recommendation of the OECD seriously, and also of setting a good example for the BRIC colleagues.

Decrees and Buses: How the Open Government Partnership Translates into Action in Brazil

The U.S. and Brazil teamed up to form an important global initiative, the Open Government Partnership (OGP). The project was launched by President Obama and President Dilma Rousseff right before the General Assembly of the United Nations this year (which by the way, was opened for the first time by a woman, President Rousseff).

The initiative outlines four key commitments to be undertaken by participating governments: a) increase the availability of information about government activities; b) support civic participation; c) implement the highest standards of professional integrity; d) increase access to new technologies for openness and accountability. Until September 20 the OGP declaration had been endorsed by Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, UK, US, and Brazil.

It is doubtless a great initiative, which has been supported by many NGO’s and other civil society organizations worldwide. However, a question remains about how the initiative will be translated into concrete action at each participating country. One criticism often heard in Brazil is that the initiative has not be so broadly publicized internally as it has been publicized internationally.

A few reasons might help explain that. One is the OGP´s commitment that requires governments to “increase the availability of information about government activities”. Brazil still does not have a “freedom of information act”. Citizens seeking for government information have to navigate through several different pieces of legislation, none of them providing a comprehensive and satisfactory solution. The very few avenues that exist for access to information include class action laws (“ação civil pública” and “ação popular”), and the traditional writ of mandamus. Neither of them is really practical, nor accessible to the common citizen.

In the meantime, congress has been discussing since April 2010 a draft bill that would truly enact an effective freedom of information law in the country. Named “PLC 41/2010”, it quickly proved itself a controversial proposal. Members of Senate, most notably Senator Fernando Collor, resorted to procedural speed bumps in order to slow down the project discussion, to the point that it has been currently halted at the Senate. Senator Collor also proposed a substitute version to the text, which would make the law basically toothless.

One of the reasons for the controversy is that it would grant access to documents from the military government, which ruled Brazil from 1964 until 1985. The substitute version presented by Senator Collor includes exceptions in the law that would virtually create “eternal confidentiality” for certain documents. That proposal has been harshly criticized by both civil society and the press, but to no avail. The substitute version still has to be voted, and the “eternal confidentiality” can actually end up being incorporated in the text. The final vote might take months, or even years to happen. And Brazil will remain without a freedom of information law until them, in spite of its commitments under the OGP.

That is not, however, the end of the story. Fully aware that Congress might take time to enact the law, President Rousseff was quick enough to issue a federal decree establishing an array of provisions in support to open government. The Decree was enacted in September 15th, 2011, right in time for the UN General Assembly and the launch of the OGP. The president exercised her powers granted under Article 84 of the Brazilian Constitution, whereby the president has the authority to provide for the “organization and structure of federal administration, in the cases where there is neither increase of expenses nor creation or extinction of public agencies.”

The Decree establishes a set of principles to promote of open government, and creates an inter-ministerial committee (called GICA), with the mandate to propose and coordinate open government initiatives inside the federal government. The Decree does get to the point of creating concrete steps or goals that must be implemented, but it certainly creates a framework in which these concrete steps might (or not) emerge.

Being a federal decree, it is binding only to the federal government. However, other state and city governments have been adopting policies consistent with the commitments of the OGP. One example is the city of Sao Paulo that recently enacted a decree mandating that every learning material produced by the city must be licensed and made available under an open license, such as Creative Commons. That is just one example of the growing Open Educational Resources movement in Brazil, and the strength of civil society in pushing for an open government agenda much before OGP took place.

One of my favorite examples, however, is the “Hacker Bus” (“Onibus Hacker”), an initiative by a group of hacktivists called Transparencia Hacker. They had been pushing for the open government agenda for years. Tired of being stood up by state and city government officers, they decided to resort to Catarse, a Brazilian version for Kickstarter. They asked money to buy an old bus that would then travel around Brazil promoting meetings between the vagrant group of hakers and city and state government authorities. They quickly raised R$58,000 (approximately $32,000) and the bus has been acquired. The group is in the final preparations to start their hacker trip, and it is expected to increase visibility to the commitments undertaken by Brazil under the OGP.

In short, the Open Government agenda in Brazil is not a new one, and it certainly sounds like an expected development the fact that Brazil and the U.S. are co-chairing the Open Government Partnership. There will be more speed bumps ahead, either in the way of Congress or in the way of the hacker bus, but at least both seem to be bearing the right direction.

UPDATE: The Brazilian Freedom of Information Law was passed on October 25th, rejecting the “eternal confidentiality” articles and the substitute version prepared by Senator Collor, therefore sticking to the original (and better) text. It now remains to see how the law will be actually implemented, and if access to public information will become an effective tangible right for most citizens.