Meta Platforms Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s Google appeared before Brazil's Supreme Court on Tuesday to defend a law that says internet companies are not responsible for content that users post unless the companies are subject to a court order.
The companies are appealing a 2017 lawsuit by a Brazilian woman who wanted Facebook to remove a profile and sued the company for compensation.
If upheld, their appeals could establish jurisprudence for future cases concerning liability for internet content, at a time when social media companies are under pressure in Brazil due to a surge of political disinformation.
Rodrigo Ruf, lawyer for Meta unit Facebook Servicos online do Brasil Ltda., defended the constitutionality of an article in the 2014 law governing internet regulation that says platforms are only responsible for users' content if they fail to comply with a court order to remove it.
(For top technology news of the day, subscribe to our tech newsletter Today’s Cache)
"We defend the constitutionality of article 19. It's a balanced solution," Ruf told a public hearing held by two Supreme Court judges on the appeals and attended by Justice Minister Flavio Dino.
At stake is the future of the article. According to Ruf, declaring it unconstitutional would increase removals of subjective content, including critical content that is important for democratic public debate. It is unclear what a standard for removing content would look like if the article is overturned.
The fiercely fought 2022 presidential election, which leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva narrowly won, was awash in misinformation that mobilised supporters of right-wing loser Jair Bolsonaro to invade government buildings in riots on January 8 that aimed to overturn the election result.
The polarised political climate has led to calls to regulate the internet, a move that tech companies discourage as they rebut charges that they did not do enough to fight undemocratic misinformation during the election.
In mid-March, Brazil's government said it was planning to regulate internet platforms to reduce misinformation but also to tax platforms making money from advertising.
The debate on expanding regulation is necessary to prevent social networks from being exempt from punishment, Dino told the hearing, adding that the likelihood of unrestricted profile creation and news violates constitutional principles.
"Freedom of expression is not at risk when it is regulated," he said.
In partnership with Brazilian electoral authorities, Meta said it complied with hundreds of court orders, rejected 135,000 election ads and removed more than 3 million posts for violent content or for inciting violence and hate speech, including posts calling for a military coup and subverting democracy.
Google Brasil lawyer Guilherme Sanchez said the company does not wait for court orders to remove content from its platforms.
"It is a myth to assume article 19 is the reason why harmful or illegal content can be found on the internet," he said.
In 2022 in Brazil, Google-owned YouTube removed more than a million videos that violated its policies against misinformation, hate speech, violence, harassment and child safety. By contrast, in the same period Google received just 1,700 requests for the removal of content from its products.
E-commerce giant Mercado Libre's Latin American legal head Humberto Chiesi Filho said any direct liability of platforms for content generated by third parties would entail widespread restrictions in the e-commerce sector, adding it could hit people who depend on the sector.
"Doubts could result in the removal of regular content from seller users," he added.