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#IGF2014: Brazil, Russia and Nigeria’s Online Rights Records

Web Foundation · September 3, 2014

Completing our hat-trick of IGF 2014 posts, we now turn our attention to Brazil, Russia and Nigeria. These major emerging nations have all sent large delegations to the IGF to debate the future of the Internet. So how do South America’s powerhouse, Africa’s largest economy and the planet’s largest country stack up when it comes to Internet rights and freedoms back at home?

1. Brazil


“Our model for the Marco Civil da Internet can now influence the global debate on the path to ensuring real rights in the virtual world.”

– Dilma Rousseff, 2014




Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Dilma Rouseff and Nnenna Nwakanma in April 2014


Brazil, ranked 33rd in the 2013 Web Index, has manoeuvred itself to the forefront of the Internet governance landscape in the past 12 months, and this is reflected in its significant presence (a delegation of 8) at the IGF. Last September, President Dilma Rosseff used an address at the United Nations to launch a stinging attack on mass surveillance, and the country subsequently hosted the groundbreaking Net Mundial conference in April 2014.

In April, Brazil became the first country in the world to pass a digital bill of rights for her citizens. The ‘Marco Civil da Internet’ is underpinned by seven basic principles – the right to privacy online, protection of personal data, guaranteed network neutrality, preservation of stability online via technical best practices, freedom of business models, protection of the Internet as a participatory network and a principle that users are responsible for their actions online.

Freedom of expression and privacy – Amber

If effectively implemented and supported by progressive reform of other related laws, the Marco Civil could reverse negative trends that have increasingly threatened Brazilians’ freedom of expression and privacy. But the challenges ahead are significant, which is why we have issued Brazil a yellow card.

Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders both report an upturn in retaliatory violence and defamation suits against journalists and bloggers – including the murder of three prominent online journalists who had reported on corruption. Freedom House estimates that in 2012 two in five threats against journalists “related to content posted on personal blogs, websites, and social networks.” Brazil’s harsh defamation laws, which don’t allow for public interest exceptions, are often used as instruments of political intimidation, including in several recent cases against political satire blogs. Brazil’s problematic copyright regime, rated one of the worst in the world by Consumers International, has also been used to shut down satirical websites. After concessions to cultural industry stakeholders, the Marco Civil specifically excluded copyright infringement; copyright reform will instead be addressed in another upcoming bill.

The latest Google Transparency report shows that Brazil is the country sixth-most likely to request user data from Google, and other reports suggest the Brazilian government is in fact stepping up both legal and extralegal snooping on on its citizens.

As with freedom of expression, the Marco Civil establishes new and positive, but broadly worded protections for Internet users’ privacy. How they are implemented will depend partly on the forthcoming data protection bill and partly on how vigorously the courts control law enforcement and security agencies’ access to and use of user metadata. In this context of legal uncertainty, some critics are concerned that Brazilian Internet and content providers are now required to hold user metadata for six months to one year, which the government can access if it secures a warrant. Similar data retention provisions in the EU were recently invalidated by the European Court of Justice, which found them to constitute an impermissibly broad interference with the right to privacy. Moreover, a draft bill that allows authorities to access geolocalization data from mobile phones without a court order is “on its way to be approved,” according to Derechos Digitales.

Despite the many challenges that lie ahead with implementation, with Marco Civil, Brazil has established a strong legal foundation for security, privacy, accountability and stability. The rest of the world should be encouraged to follow suit.

Net Neutrality – Amber

Net Neutrality is enshrined in law under Marco Civil, although it was hotly contested by telecoms operators and much work lies ahead to ensure that the regulations implementing the law will be robust and well-enforced.

Access – Amber

With just over half of the population online, Brazil does well on access, although it lags some other upper middle income countries such as Malaysia and Kazahkstan.

A digital divide based on wealth and urbanisation still exists in the country. In 2012, CETIC reported that the urban penetration rate was 44% – but the corresponding rural figure was just 10%.

The government is taking the challenges seriously and its National Broadband Plan aims to triple broadband access by 2014 (see A4AI’s Country Case study on Brazil for an overview of policy measures being taken) but doing so will require serious political will to tackle the lack of competition among the handful of operators who currently dominate the market.

2. Russia


Under this pretext (of protecting children online), … one should not introduce any restrictions on civil liberties and the free market.

-Vladimir Putin, 2014.




Picture: The Kremlin


Russia leapt to centre stage in Internet governance debates in 2011/2012 when it proposed to bring some aspects of Internet regulation within the scope of the ITU’s International Telecommunications Regulations, and to place Internet domain names under the control of national governments. In 2013 it offered temporary asylum to Edward Snowden. It has sent 14 people to this year’s IGF. With reports leaking out about its plans to build a closed and centralised national intranet, it’s clear that Russia intends to keep challenging the West with its own vision of an Internet based on “information security”.

Freedom of Expression and Privacy – Red

Russia was one of a handful of countries to score a 0 out of 10 on both censorship and surveillance in the 2013 Web Index, meaning that both practices are rampant and subject to few, if any, checks and balances. Initially, restrictions were allegedly aimed at child protection and combating piracy, but next came measures to block online access to “extremist content”; a decree requiring those using public Internet access points (including internet cafes) to provide proof of identity; and a law requiring popular bloggers to register as media outlets and accept legal liability for moderating any content deemed illegal under current legislation.

Russia also recently enacted anti-terrorist laws requiring online platform operators to retain user communications data for up to six months. A similar Bill covering telecoms is also being considered. The main security agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), has installed special underground cables providing every FSB local office with direct access to the servers of telecoms operators and internet providers. Although in theory a court order is required, it doesn’t have to be shown to anyone before the data is intercepted.

Finally, there is a push to require global web platforms such as Gmail and Facebook to either use the domain extension .ru in Russia, or be hosted on Russian territory. Although presented as a way to protect Russians from NSA snooping, these moves will also increase the already extensive surveillance powers of the Russian state. “Under Russian control, these companies and their Russian users could protect their data from U.S. government surveillance and, most importantly, be completely transparent for Russian secret services,” note Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan.

Not all responsibility can be laid at the Kremlin’s door, however. As Soldatov and Borogan add, “The apparent readiness of global [web] services [companies] to cooperate with the Russian government seems to provoke the authorities to push increasingly in the Chinese direction.”

Ironically, research by CitizenLab and Privacy International last year found that surveillance technology made by Russian companies is being exported as far afield as the US, Canada, and Brazil – showing that the problem of export controls can cut both ways.

Net Neutrality – Red

Net neutrality is enforced by law in Russia. However, since 2007 network providers have been able to limit the actions of individual consumers if such actions threaten the normal functioning of the network. Some commentators argue that proposals to create a “Russian Internet” would, if implemented, lead to monopolisation of infrastructure by a few key players, like Rostelecom, who would then be likely to favour certain uses and content over others – albeit for political, rather than commercial, gain.

Access – Amber

Defying world trends, the percentage of Russians using the Internet actually dropped slightly from 2012 to 2013, from 64% to 61%. The Russian Federation scores lower than South Africa, Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia on the Universal Access pillar of the 2013 Web Index. On the positive side, there has been considerable investment in broadband infrastructure in cities, and where it is available it is among the cheapest in the world when considered in cost per Mbps.

3. Nigeria


In Nigeria we care about our freedom to seek, receive, impart and use information especially when it relates to the creation, accumulation and dissemination of knowledge.

– Minister of Communications Technology, Ms. Omobola Johnson


Source:ITU Pictures on Flickr


Nigeria, with a government delegation of 17, has the second largest presence in Istanbul. The communications minister, Omobola Johnson, was recently elected chair of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development, while Nigeria’s Shola Taylor is a candidate for Vice Secretary General in the forthcoming ITU leadership elections.  Nigeria is a member of the Alliance for Affordable Internet and was one the core backers of the groundbreaking UN resolution on human rights on the Internet.

While South Africa has been largely missing in action in recent Internet governance debates, Nigeria seems to have ambitions to play a larger role. This is welcome, as an effective African voice in such debates is sorely needed. To date, however, the government has yet to articulate a clear and consistent stand on the most pressing issues of the day, either at home or abroad.

Freedom of expression and privacy – Amber

Nigeria passed a progressive Freedom of Information law in 2011 but the overall environment for press freedom has deteriorated in recent years.More than a dozen journalists were prosecuted in 2013 under anti-terrorism and incitement laws, and websites carrying coverage of the government’s record on sensitive issues such as the Boko Haram insurgency faced occasional interference. In the face of such pressures, social media are becoming an important outlet for views that are increasingly censored in the mainstream media. The risk is that the government decides to extend its growing efforts to rein in dissent to cyberspace; if it does, there are scant legal grounds to stop this.

In 2013 news reports emerged that the government had awarded a secret contract to Israel-based Elbit Systems to help monitor Internet communications in Nigeria.  Citizen Lab research also found a FinFisher command and server, which communicates with malware that can be used for surveillance, located on a private ISP in April 2013. Detailed data protection rules don’t exist in Nigeria (a draft data protection bill has not yet been passed, and has been criticised by experts as “poorly drafted and confusing”). In this context, the recent announcement of a mandatory biometric ID card that will integrate several government databases while also functioning as a MasterCard payment card has privacy experts worried. At the very least there is a need for greater clarity on how individuals’ data will be stored and used.

Nigeria has yet to state a clear position on how the trade-off between human rights (including the rights to privacy and freedom of expression) and national security should be resolved online, although Communications Minister Omobola Johnson has mentioned this as a key challenge in several speeches. As Johnson prepares to get to work as chair of the CSTD, it will be critical that Nigeria articulates a coherent vision on the issue.

Access – Red

Only a third of Nigerians are able to use the Internet. This means that despite rapid connectivity growth in recent years, Nigeria still lags behind South Africa and other middle income countries on the Web Index universal access rankings. Low access is primarily due to high costs: fixed broadband costs almost 40% of per capita income in Nigeria. The country has drafted an ambitious national broadband plan, which seeks to increase the broadband penetration rate fivefold by 2017. Nigeria also recently joined the Alliance for Affordable Internet and pledged to introduce regulatory reforms to bring costs down and increase access.


Post-Snowden, hopes were high that the G77, and particularly the BRICS, might break the North vs. South deadlock on how to stop mass surveillance while maintaining an open and borderless Internet.

At the recent BRICS summit in Brazil, leaders “strongly condemned acts of mass electronic surveillance and data collection of individuals all over the world” and expressed their commitment to “ensure a peaceful, secure and open digital and Internet space” based on “universally accepted norms and principles of international law” – which most experts would take to include international human rights law.

Unfortunately, the actions of leading emerging nations so far don’t entirely bear out our hopes.

Political elites in all three countries we examine in this post are clearly grappling with the explosion of dissent and exposure enabled by social media and online journalism. While Brazil has evidently decided to put its faith in open debate on an open web, and the current Russian government has come down firmly on the side of censorship, Nigeria appears torn between the two approaches.

Brazil has backed away from earlier threats to impose data localisation in favour of placing data and services under Brazilian jurisdiction (including a commitment to robust privacy protection), but Russia is pursuing the idea vigorously. Nigeria, as noted above, has yet to communicate a clear vision on behalf of Africa or itself. At the same time, Russia and Nigeria, and possibly Brazil as well, are stepping up their own capacity for “mass electronic surveillance and data collection of individuals”.

In all cases, responses to the NSA scandal seem to reflect an ongoing tussle between securocrats’ desire to develop their own powers of bulk data collection, vs. civil libertarians’ desire to keep their citizens safe from the USA’s prying eyes. Economic interests (and especially the perception that Western tech giants have cornered too much of the massive profit streams flowing from the Internet’s growth) may be another elephant in the room. Russia’s plans for a national intranet, Alexandra Kulikova argues, would allow a handful of politically connected players to squeeze out smaller competitors, and as Sunil Abraham noted yesterday, data localisation proposals may partly reflect a response to aggressive tax minimisation tactics by global Internet companies as well as an effort to boost the local tech sector. It’s clear that none of these issues will be resolved without serious and far-reaching moves by Western governments to roll back their own secret surveillance programmes. In addition, we need a good faith effort by major global tech companies and the countries that host them to work with developing countries on solving the challenges of taxing the digital economy fairly and transparently.

As long as the pervasive gap between Internet governance rhetoric and domestic reality persists, the game-changing importance of democratic, bottom-up processes at national level – like the one that led to the Marco Civil in Brazil – cannot be overestimated. The time is now to demand a digital bill of rights in every country that protects our rights as users and advances the Web We Want.

We’d like to thank Carolina Rossini, Joana Varon and Edetaen Ojo for their advice on this post, although they should not be held responsible for the views expressed or for any errors made.

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