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Are we facing a turning point in global digital politics?

Published on 20 September 2013
Updated on 19 March 2024

When Brazil speaks on Internet governance (IG) everybody listens. Conference audiences shift from browsing the Net and look at the podium. The buzz in the room is replaced by an almost reverent silence. Every word is carefully heard. Brazil is a swing country in Internet governance. As a truly democratic developing country, it has been a strong supporter of the multistakeholder IG model; it has one of the best Internet diplomacy teams.

Earlier this week, Brazil spoke and marked a new phase in global IG. In the wake of revelations that the NSA spied on her and hacked into the state-owned oil company – Petroleo Brasileiro, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff cancelled her visit to the USA in a move that Brooks and Bajnak, writing for the Associated Press think a ‘potentially dangerous first step toward politically fracturing’ this global network. Brazil is moving towards greater online independence to protect Brazil’s citizens from online snooping.

This development has broader relevance for two reasons (i) it could signify Internet politics moving from the limited domain of Internet governance (IG)  to the premier league of global geo-politics (for good or for bad); and (ii) Brazil, as the key ‘swing country’ repositioning itself is likely to create tectonic shifts in the global IG debate. Since PRISM/NSA, Brazil has been moving towards the inter-governmental side of the IG spectrum. 

Recent media coverage highlights a few important points regarding the Brazilian move that potentially could have major impact on global digital policy. Up to now we have heard talk of a risk of fragmentation of the Internet; this risk is becoming more realistic. There is a push in Brazil to keep data within national borders (which would signal the end of cloud computing). If a new law is voted in the next 45 days, it will force Facebook/Google/Twitter to keep the data of Brazilian citizens on servers based in Brazil. And it is a given that Brazil will raise the issue of IG at the next UN General Assembly.

The future of the Internet is at stake.

From a US perspective, it is the future of Silicon Valley that is at stake. The more limits Facebook/Google/Twitter face (online privacy, national clouds) to accessing data, the less profitable their businesses will be as their business models are based mainly on access to data. Yet cultural and political relevance of the global Internet is equally important for the USA.

From a Brazilian perspective (one that is supported by Latin America), if it pushes too far with regard to ‘national Internet’, it could endanger its further socio-economic growth.  The Internet is great enabler in Brazil like many other countries. In addition, isolation is not a cure for intrusion.

Is there space for compromise which will both protect the Internet as we know it and ensure the protection of public and private interests? Yes, there is. And it can be beneficial for humanity. Better, enforceable, and transparent protection of data on international level (in essence, the implementation of existing treaties on privacy protection) could be the way forward. How we do it remains to be seen. Many solutions are possible from developing stronger implementation and reporting mechanisms for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with the main responsibility sitting with governments to make an arrangement in which Internet companies’ commitment to online privacy could be supervised by public-private supervisory mechanism (ICoC as a possible model). Other options include the application of  specific national laws on data from specific countries through the use of geo-location software.

A lot is at stake. A proactive move towards finding a compromise solution is essential. It may offer a win-win solution, or at least, like many compromises, a solution with which all parties will be equally unhappy.

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