Brazil’s Senate and Supreme Court have overturned rules issued by President Jair Bolsonaro last week banning social networks from removing what they see as misinformation about the upcoming presidential election.
Double moves by the court and by Congress late on Tuesday were quickly killed one of the most restrictive and intrusive internet laws introduced in a democratic country. It was a sharp rebuke to a president who was already struggling with a series of political crises.
When Bolsonaro issued the policy, it was the first time a national government had moved to prevent social media companies from removing content that violates their rules.
This move scared technology companies and Bolsonaro’s political opponents because it seemed intended to enable the president and his allies to undermine confidence in next year’s presidential election.
In recent months, Bolsonaro has used social media to spread claims that the only way to lose the election is if the vote is rigged. Such allegations would have been protected under the emergency measure Bolsonaro issued last week, giving social media companies 30 days to comply.
But in quick succession on Tuesday, the Supreme Court suspended the rules from coming into force, while the president of the Brazilian senate in practice shelved them.
“It is a very positive sign that the Brazilian political class reacted,” said Mauricio Santoro, a professor of international relations at Rio de Janeiro State University. “Brazilian leadership finally understands the importance of the Internet to political life in Brazil.”
Mr Bolsonaro relied on the internet to help him become president in 2018 and used social networks to spread his brand of right-wing populism. Now, in the face of crises that include the pandemic, corruption investigations and declining turnout, he is turning to social media again – this time to try to save his presidency.
In posts and videos on the internet, Bolsonaro has attacked the Supreme Court, tried unproven cures against the coronavirus and called for nationwide protests against his political enemies. Social media deleted some of his posts about the coronavirus.
Since last week, ahead of the night of nationwide protests, he issued a so-called temporary measure, a type of emergency order designed to deal with emergency situations. According to the policy, social media companies can only delete posts that contain certain types of content, such as nudity, incitement to crime or copyright infringement. In order to reduce other services, companies must obtain a court decision.
The Bolsonaro government is also setting limits on social media companies’ ability to delete user accounts, potentially protecting Bolsonaro from the fate of his political ally, former President Donald J. Trump. Mr. Trump turned off his megaphone earlier this year when the major social networks blocked him from their sites.
Social media companies attacked the new rules, saying they would allow inaccurate information to be disseminated. On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Twitter, who praised the actions of the Senate and the Supreme Court, said that the Bolsonaro policy “undermines the values and consensus” of Brazilian Internet laws. Facebook and YouTube declined to comment.
Mr Bolsonaro’s government did not respond to a request for comment.
Brazil’s highest court has investigated disinformation operations in the country, and Bolsonaro became a target for these investigations last month. A member of the court, Judge Alexandre de Moraes, has imprisoned several of the president’s supporters for allegedly financing or encouraging violence or anti-democratic acts.
Mr Bolsonaro has called these arrests politically motivated, and Justice Moraes was the target of nationwide protests from the president’s supporters this month.
In the United States, conservative politicians have tried to pass similar laws, part of their larger battle with Silicon Valley over what they see as technology companies’ censorship of right-wingers.
Florida gone through a team in May who tried to block social networks from removing political candidates from their websites, however a federal judge blocked it a month later. The The Texas governor signed a similar law last week.
In Brazil, the rules issued by Bolsonaro faced big odds.
Such provisional measures will expire in 120 days unless the Brazilian Congress makes them permanent. Instead, Senate President Rodrigo Pacheco sent them back to Mr Bolsonaro in just over a week, effectively killing the measure.
Both the Senate President and the Supreme Court said the rules should not have been issued as a provisional measure because they did not address an urgent situation and because Congress was debating a bill to regulate social networks.
They also said the rules would have been bad for the country, says Carlos Affonso Souza, a professor at Rio de Janeiro State University who specializes in Internet law. “There was a lot of concern that the online environment could become more toxic and dangerous,” he said.
Affonso Souza said the Senate’s decision restricted Bolsonaro from issuing the same rules this year, but he could try again in 2022.
Given next year’s presidential election and Bolsonaro’s low polls, Santoro said he expected the president to try something different to ensure he could continue to use the internet to spread his message.
“He will not end this struggle so easily,” he said. “The Internet is very important to him.”