Once again, Facebook and Twitter are finding themselves caught in the crossfire as Brazil's top court goes after suspected purveyors of fake news. Supreme Court Judge Alexandre de Moraes ordered both platforms to block accounts spreading illegal content.
The fact that national Brazilian judges are having international social media accounts blocked is a novelty and could have global repercussions. "There is a lot at stake for these corporations," Pablo Ortellado, professor of politics at the University of Sao Paulo, told DW. "Facebook wants to avoid setting a precedent," he added.
In June, Brazil's top court ordered 12 Facebook pages and 16 Twitter accounts that are used by supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to be blocked.The move came as part of its so-called "fake news investigation." Judges argue the accounts were being used to disseminate falsehoods and issue threats against federal judges.
Detour via foreign servers
Facebook and Twitter blocked the Brazilian accounts in question. But the respective Facebook pages were still accessible via foreign servers, and Twitter users simply needed to specify a foreign location in the app settings to view the accounts. On July 30, Judge Alexandre de Moraes then ordered the accounts be completely blocked. Twitter has since complied, while Facebook has not.
Judge Moraes subsequently fined the tech company the equivalent of US$350,000 (€295,055) and threatened to impose further fines unless the accounts in questions are universally blocked. After refusing to budge, Moraes then contacted the head of Facebook Brazil, Conrado Leister, stressing that even steeper fines and other consequences could follow. Finally, the tech company caved in.
Facebook to appeal ruling
This is not the first time national courts have forced tech companies like Facebook to delete content for either violating a person's individual rights or constituting a criminal offense. Germany's Network Enforcement Act, for example, obliges tech companies to swiftly delete illegal content from its platforms.
By the same token, some German courts have forced Facebook to reinstate comments that were deleted by the tech giant, deeming them in line with the principle of free speech. All these cases, however, were restricted to the national level. The Brazilian judiciary's move to block global access to several social media pages and accounts marks a major step up from this. Facebook, in turn, will not accept such a broad restriction of its services and will appeal the court ruling, says Ortellado.
The decision by Brazil's top court is proving highly divisive. Ortellado says courts are acting democratically when they demand criminal content to be deleted. "But preventing certain individuals from participating in public discourse out a fear they could publish criminal content is something entirely different," he says. That, in his opinion, amounts to "preemptive censorship."
This is a view shared by Brazilian President Bolsonaro, who has already called on the public prosecutor to assess the court's decision to ban the social media accounts. Ortellado welcomes the step in principle, though stresses that "it is not the president's job to fight for the rights of individuals."
Court order could backfire
Tales Faria, a reporter for the country's UOL news platform who is based in the capital Brasilia, thinks the curt order could backfire and play into the hands of Bolsonaro's supporters. Now, he argues, they can call on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for help. Should it find that the Brazilian court issued an excessive verdict, this would bolster their position.
It is questionable if banning user accounts is at all effective, as the case of Brazilian far-right extremist Sara Winter shows. The 28-year-old, whose real name is Sara Giromini, is a leading member of Brazil's armed 300 do Brasil militia, which backs Bolsonaro.
After her Twitter account was blocked, she simply registered a new one, casting herself as "a political prisoner, censored by the supreme court." Her Facebook, YouTube and Telegram accounts still remain active.
On July 24, she launched a new Twitter channel called "Sara Winter on Fire." Now, she no longer has 270,000 but merely 34,000 followers. But with the extra publicity, that could soon change.