A major escalation in official online censorship regimes is progressing rapidly in Brazil, with implications for everyone in the democratic world. Under Brazil’s new government headed by President Lula da Silva, the country is poised to become the first in the democratic world to implement a law censoring and banning, and punishing not only “fake news” and “disinformation” online, but also punishing those deemed guilty of spreading it. Such laws already exist throughout the non-democratic world, adopted years ago by the planet’s most tyrannical regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.
If one wishes to be generous with the phrase “the democratic world” and include Malaysia and Singapore – at best hybrid “democracies” – then one could argue that a couple other “democratic” governments have already seized the power to decree Absolute Truth and then ban any deviation from it. But absent unexpected opposition, Brazil will soon become the first country unambiguously included in the democratic world to outlaw “fake news” and vest government officials with the power to banish it and punish its authors.
Last May, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was forced to retreat from its attempt to appoint a “disinformation czar” to oversee what would effectively be its Ministry of Truth. That new DHS agency, at least nominally, was to be only advisory: it would declare truth and falsity and then pressure online platforms to comply by banning that which was deemed false. The backlash was so great that DHS finally claimed to cancel it, though secret documents emerged in October describing the agency’s plans to continue to shape online censorship decisions of Big Tech.
Brazil’s law would be anything but advisory. Though the details are still yet to be released, it would empower law enforcement officials to take action against citizens deemed to be publishing statements that the government classifies as “false,” and to solicit courts to impose punishment on those who do so.