June 15, 2024

A Legacy at Risk: How the new Ministry of Culture in Brazil reversed its digital agenda

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has become a prominent figure in the political world. When he completed his second and last term last December, 87% of Brazilians approved his government, an unprecedented high rate. So it is not surprising that his successor Dilma Roussef, the first woman elected president in Brazil, took office with his strong support and the promise of continuity.

However, disappointment about that promise is growing, at least in regard to one of Lula’s landmark policies: his support to the so-called “digital culture” policies. “Digital Culture” is the expression Brazilians use to refer to a broad agenda. It derives from the principle that technology is a crucial tool for cultural policies, especially because it allows the democratization of access, and the production and dissemination of cultural artifacts. It includes also the reform of copyright, especially because the Brazilian copyright has become notoriously restrictive, preventing consumers from uploading their CD´s into an iPod, a library from digitizing an old book for preservation, or a professor from using excerpts of a film in classroom. Finally, the digital culture agenda also includes the support to open licensing models, such as free software or Creative Commons.

These policies were successfully deployed by Gilberto Gil, a popular musician appointed Minister of Culture in 2003. He was profiled as early as 2004 by Wired Magazine as a champion of free culture and free software. Mr. Gil became such a popular politician in the country that some started calling him “the Lula of Lula”, in reference to his high popularity and progressive policies, within an already popular and progressive government.

Mr. Gil’s policies were continued by his successor (and former chief of staff) Juca Ferreira, who was appointed Minister of Culture in 2008 after Gil resigned to devote more time to his music career. One of the most successful policies implemented by Gil/Juca was the creation of the so-called “cultural hotspots”. The program provides resources to grassroots cultural initiatives and organizations to acquire multimedia production equipment and broadband Internet. More than 4,000 hotspots were created, spread over more than 1,000 cities in the country. Many of them in poor areas, rural communities, or favelas (shanty towns).

Mr. Gil described the idea of the hotspots as an “anthropological tao-in”, in reference to the Chinese therapeutic massage that when applied to the right spots of the body, awakens its internal energy. According to his view, with the right incentives, it was possible to energize and foster cultural practices in places often neglected. His view was that every citizen should be considered a producer, and not only a consumer of culture. The hotspots should provide the tools necessary for access, production, and dissemination of local culture, especially for those coming from poor or peripheral areas.

Information technology and the hacker ethic was an integral part of that vision, including incentives for the adoption of free software and Creative Commons, what eventually led to a national discussion about the impact of copyright over cultural production, spurring the the ongoing copyright reform process.

As Mr. Gil put it in his own words in 2005, at a speech he delivered at NYU:

I, Gilberto Gil, Brazilian citizen and citizen of the World, Minister of Culture of Brazil, work with music, at the Ministry, and in all dimensions of my life under the inspiration of the hacker ethic – and concerned with the issues of my world and my time present me, such as the issue of digital inclusion, the issue of free software and the issue of regulation and development of the production and dissemination of audiovisual content by any means, for any purpose.

I want indeed for the Ministry of Culture of Brazil to be a laboratory for new ideas, capable of inventing new procedures for the world’s creative industries, and capable of proposing suggestions aimed at overcoming the present dead ends – I did indeed think that my country should dare and not wait for solutions to come from outside, from societies that would tell us Brazilians which path should be followed for our development, as if our future could only be our becoming a nation such as the ones that exist here or in Europe.

Gil´s speech seems now almost lost in a distant time. The reason is that the newly appointed Ministry of Culture, Mrs. Ana de Hollanda, has taken advantage of her first weeks in office to reverse much of what was built in the past 8 years. By way of example, one of her first actions was to remove the Creative Commons license from the Ministry’s website, without any prior note. The license had been used for the past 6 years, and the Ministry of Culture was actually the pioneer in its adoption at the government level. It is worth noting that the CC licenses continue to be used at other government branches, including the official weblog of president Dilma Roussef. Ironically, at the same day the licenses were taken down by the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Planning issued a normative instruction fostering the adoption of open licenses, and expressly mentioning Creative Commons.

This contradiction led prominent politicians in Brazil, including Congress member Paulo Teixeira, to claim that the Ministry of Culture has engaged in policies that conflict with the overall direction of the Federal Government. Mr. Teixeira reminds that during the presidential campaign, president Dilma Roussef met with Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons, during an important campaign act. She also publicly committed to go ahead with the copyright reform and the digital culture agenda. Before that, in 2009, both president Lula and Dilma (then his Secretary of State) attended together the International Free Software Forum (FISL 10), one of the largest free software global events, which takes place in the city of Porto Alegre. There, Lula’s speech focused on his support to digital culture, Internet freedom and free software.

Other source of criticism is the proximity of the new Minister of Culture with the copyright collecting societies. By way of example, in her first weeks in office, the Minister agreed to meet with Hildebrando Pontes, a lawyer that works for the collecting societies who has become notorious for arguing that copyright should last forever. At the same time, the Ministry declined to meet with representatives of civil society, including those from the “cultural hotspots” program. She then fired the chief copyright officer who led the reform process for the past 6 years, and appointed Mrs. Marcia Regina Barbosa, a lawyer who worked with Hildebrando Pontes.

Collecting societies are a controversial institution in Brazil. They face strong discontentment from rights holders, who claim they are not paid properly. They also face discontentment from their paying “customers”, who claim their criteria for setting royalty prices are simply obscure. They have also been declared by congress inquiry committees as lacking transparency and clear accounting. One of the goals of the copyright reform initiated by Mr. Gilberto Gil was precisely to implement a minimum set of regulation over the collecting societies. By law they have the monopoly over their business, but unlike other countries, no regulation applies to their activities, which remain excused from any sort of independent assessment. Regulation is also supported by many prominent Brazilian musicians, who have recently become vocal about the issue.

The Ministry of Culture change of policy has drawn the attention of both national and international organizations. Even before the Minister´s inauguration, an open letter subscribed by more that 1,500 representatives of civil society organizations in Brazil was posted online expressing concern with the possible change of direction. Folha de São Paulo, the largest newspaper in the country, wrote a piece about the letter. The Minister, however, declined to provide any comments to the journalist. To this date, the letter has not been replied or even acknowledged by the Minister or her staff.

The Minister´s actions, together with the absence of clear statements justifying her decisions, have generated considerable uproar. A public campaign called Sou MinCC (“I am MinCC”) emerged (MinC is the acronym for Ministry of Culture – MinCC is the result of MinC + CC, in reference to the Creative Commons licenses). Besides that, the Commons Strategies Group, an international NGO, prepared an open letter (led by Silke Helfrich at the World Social Forum in Dakar) to President Dilma, also expressing concern about the new policies. The letter was released on February, 21st, and gathered the support of organizations such as Creative Commons, the Free Knowledge Institute (Netherlands), La Quadrature du Net (France), among others.

This is an important moment for the history of cultural policies in Brazil. There is a shared feeling that much of what was built in the past 8 years is at risk. A heated debate took over the Brazilian public sphere, with articles being published by all the major newspapers. The collecting societies and their members have taken the stand to argue in favor of the Minister, claiming that the decisions taken so far are a “sovereign act”, and that the collecting societies should indeed be exempt of any external supervision, and the copyright reform should be halted for good.

But the place where the debate is really developing on a daily basis is the Internet. Bloggers, twittterers and social network members have engaged fiercely in the discussion of the current situation. Many of them were too young to even acknowledge the appointment of Gilberto when he took office. It is a new generation that has risen for the first time to debate the future of culture and technology policies in Brazil. Inadvertently, the new Minister Ana de Hollanda is contributing to the emergence of new generation of voices online. One now can only hope that she will eventually listen to them.