Brazil is pushing for a law that could end American control over Internet data

With the digital cold war between the U.S. and Brazil heating up, the world’s biggest tech firms have started massive lobbying in this country to stall a legislation that may force Google, Facebook and other Internet companies to store locally gathered data inside Brazil.

Angered by revelations of massive surveillance of its citizens and spying of President Dilma Rousseff’s personal phone and e-mail by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), the Brazilian government is pushing for the law, known as Marco Civil, that could end American control over Internet data, but web firms are trying to warn legislators about the “side-effects” of “Balkanisation of the Internet”.

As the new law can change the way the Internet is governed globally and cause losses worth billions of dollars for U.S.-based firms, they are using every trick in the book to get the legislation defeated when it goes to vote on Wednesday. While lobbyists representing the world’s major technology firms sent a letter this week to Brazilian congressmen asking them not to pass the new law, the social media giant Facebook gave free classes on Friday to some top politicians on how to win “friends” and maximise “likes” on their pages.

In their letter, the lobbyists said the new law would have negative implications across all industries that use international data transfers. “Global data flows rely on data centres dispersed all over the world,” said the letter, signed by the Information Technology Industry Council and the Software Alliance and over 40 other groups representing companies from Brazil and the rest of Latin America, Canada, Europe and Asia.

But with a wave of anger over the NSA revelations sweeping the continent, the lawmakers may not be swayed by such arguments. “We know this game. They are telling Brazil that it’s not good for us, but it is actually not good for them,” said a congressman from the ruling Workers Party.

Real fear

“Their real fear is that today it is Brazil making this law, tomorrow it will be another country and then they would lose control over Internet and data,” the congressman added.

The tech firms are also afraid of losing Brazil as a market as the new law will restrict the way companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google operate in Brazil. With 76 million Facebook users, it is a key market for the San Francisco-based company. On Friday, the social network firm offered free coaching to some politicians on how to use Facebook to reach out to their constituents. Though Katie Harbath, Facebook’s global manager for politics and government engagement, did not discuss the proposed law in her sessions with Brazilian politicians, it was not a coincidence that she conducted the workshop with the company’s top lobbyist in Brasilia.

But these efforts may not cut much ice with the Brazilian government which is rushing through the legislation.

In a radio interview on Thursday, Ms. Rousseff continued to support the proposal, saying “Brazil defends an open Internet, democratic and neutral, without any political, religious or any other restriction.”

Requiring that companies like Google keep files containing data about Brazilians in Brazil instead of the U.S. was to ensure this was a democratic space to everybody, she added.

Seeking independence

Since it was revealed in August that the NSA was collecting huge meta-data from Brazil, the government has been working on plans to circumvent U.S.-based Internet services to end mass surveillance by the American agency. If Marco Civil is passed by Congress, it would allow Brazil to open independent data centre of its own, designed to store locally generated material which would thereby avoid U.S. surveillance. Internet companies operating in Brazil are currently free to put data centres wherever they like.

South America’s largest nation and biggest economy also has plans to build an underwater fibre optic Internet cable linking the country to Europe. A company is also working on a BRICS cable project that will connect the five emerging countries: Russia, China, India, South Africa and Brazil.

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