Google draws backlash from Brazil with lobbying against ‘fake news’ bill

Google has drawn the ire of Brazil’s government and public prosecutors after publicly lobbying against legislation aimed at curbing the spread of “fake news”.

The company, which is among several in Big Tech that oppose the bill, had promoted an article on its homepage entitled “This bill will make your internet worse”.

This drew a swift reaction from Brazilian authorities. Justice minister Flávio Dino said he had asked antitrust regulators to investigate potential “abusive practices” by the tech group, while public prosecutors in the state of São Paulo demanded an official explanation. They said they were investigating whether the company had gone beyond the “ordinary practices of participation in legislative public debate”.

Dino also ordered Google to label the article as advertising and promote another advert that highlighted the benefits of the legislation, threatening to fine the company R1mn per hour (about $200,000) if it did not comply. Google, which has since removed the link from its homepage, did not respond to a request for comment.

The incident underlines the controversy stirred by the “fake news” bill and the fierce opposition that tech giants, including Google, have mounted to it, alongside free speech activists and conservative lawmakers.

The bill, which is a priority for the leftwing government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, aims to tackle the spread of misinformation by imposing strict requirements on how tech companies deal with illegal or extremist content.

If passed, the legislation would require tech companies and social media platforms to flag and remove criminal content, and platforms could also be held responsible for damage caused by paid content, such as advertisements, with potential fines if they do not remove posts quickly enough.

A congressional vote on the bill had been expected on Tuesday, although that is likely to now be delayed.

Crimes “against the democratic state of law, acts of terrorism [and] violence against women” are among the examples of what might constitute illegal content, according to the draft legislation.

The legislation comes as concerns grow about the orchestrated spread of misinformation on social media and messaging apps such as WhatsApp.

The issue returned to the fore earlier this year when thousands of supporters of Brazilian ex-president Jair Bolsonaro raided and vandalised the country’s political institutions in Brasília. Many rioters repeated falsehoods spread in far-right chat groups that the election in which Bolsonaro lost to Lula in October was rigged.

Critics of the legislation say it is draconian and open to abuse by special interests. They also say the bill is being rushed through Congress, which last week voted to skip committee discussions and put the legislation straight to plenary vote.

“Hasty legislation can make the internet work worse, restrict fundamental rights . . . and create mechanisms that put legitimate speech and freedom of expression at risk,” said Marcelo Lacerda, director of government relations and public policy at Google Brazil, in an online post earlier this month.

David Nemer, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, said Big Tech companies such as Google “are playing hardball because they know that the bill could pave the way for other countries to follow Brazil’s example”.

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