Brazil’s government is taking a stand against major tech companies over a new internet regulation that is shaping up to be one of the world’s strongest laws on social media.
Bill 2630, also known as the “fake news” law, puts the onus on the internet companies, search engines and social messaging services to find and report illegal material, instead of leaving it to the courts, charging hefty fines for failures to do so.
US companies including Alphabet have been aggressively campaigning against the new bill, with the Google parent company placing an advertisement on its search homepage in Brazil as well as YouTube there. It also took out a full-page advertisement in the local paper Folha de S Paulo to sway public opinion.
Brazil’s government and judiciary has accused the company of undue interference in the debate in congress over its public campaigning.
The justice minister, Flávio Dino, ordered Google to change the link on its homepage on Tuesday, saying the company had two hours after notification or would face fines of 1m reais ($198,000) per hour.
“What is this? An editorial? This is not a media or an advertising company,” the minister told a news conference, calling Google’s link disguised and misleading advertising for the company’s stance against the law.
The US company promptly pulled the link, though Google defended its right to communicate its concerns through “marketing campaigns” on its platforms and denied altering search results to favor material contrary to the bill.
“We support discussions on measures to combat the phenomenon of misinformation. All Brazilians have the right to be part of this conversation, and as such, we are committed to communicating our concerns about Bill 2630 publicly and transparently,” it said in a statement.
The proposed law to penalize firms for not reporting fake news was due to be voted on in the lower house of congress on Tuesday but it is facing opposition from conservative and evangelical lawmakers.
Its critics say the bill needs wider debate because it was too hastily drawn up, allows censorship and will have the opposite result of rewarding those who post disinformation since the bill proposes that companies would have to pay content providers and copyrights on material posted on their sites.
Brazil’s speaker of the house, Arthur Lira, on Tuesday moved to delay the vote on the bill after the rapporteur Orlando Silva requested more time to improve the draft and incorporate changes.
Also on Tuesday, the supreme court asked the chief executives in Brazil for Google, Meta and Spotify to testify within five days explaining their conduct regarding the bill.
“Such conduct could configure, in theory, abuse of economic power on the eve of voting on the bill by trying to illegally and immorally impact public opinion and the vote in congress,” Justice Alexandre de Moraes said in his decision.
Brazil’s antitrust regulator Cade said it would investigate Google and Meta’s campaigns against the bill.
The Brazilian proposal is comparable to the European Union’s Digital Services Act enacted last year. It was fast-tracked in the lower house after a series of fatal attacks in schools which social media allegedly encouraged, and new articles added to the bill have not been debated in congressional committees before going to the vote.
Silva said the original draft of the bill included the creation of a state agency to watch out for illegal content, but this was dropped due to resistance in congress. Internet freedom advocates have endorsed the bill as a much-needed stopgap for tech’s massive power.
“Without this bill there is no body that has the power to monitor social media companies, hold them accountable for their actions, and ensure that they don’t cause public harm,” said Laura Moraes, campaign director for the human rights non-profit Avaaz.
She added that even as the vote is delayed it was important that legislators come back with a viable solution. “We need to ensure that it exists, that it is autonomous, independent and empowered to monitor, supervise and sanction, if necessary.”