Brazil’s Senate and Supreme Court struck down the rules that President Jair Bolsonaro issued last week prohibiting social media from removing what they consider to be disinformation about the upcoming presidential elections.
The dual movements of the court and Congress late Tuesday quickly ended one of the most restrictive and intrusive Internet laws ever imposed in a democratic country. It was a strong reprimand for a president who was already struggling with a series of political crises.
When Bolsonaro issued the policy, it was the first time that a national government took steps to prevent social media companies from removing content that violates its rules.
The move alarmed Bolsonaro’s tech companies and political opponents because it appeared to be intended to allow the president and his allies to undermine confidence in next year’s presidential election.
In recent months, Bolsonaro has used social media to spread claims that the only way he will lose the election is if the vote is rigged. Such claims would have been protected under the emergency measure Bolsonaro issued last week, which gave social media companies 30 days to comply.
But in quick succession on Tuesday, the Supreme Court suspended the rules from taking effect, while the president of the Brazilian Senate effectively shelved them.
“It is a very positive sign that the Brazilian political class has reacted,” said Mauricio Santoro, professor of international relations at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. “The Brazilian leadership is finally understanding how important the Internet is for political life in Brazil.”
Bolsonaro relied on the internet to become president in 2018, using social media to spread his kind of right-wing populism. Now, faced with crises including the pandemic, corruption investigations and sinking poll numbers, he is turning to social media again, this time to try to save his presidency.
In posts and online videos, Bolsonaro attacked the Supreme Court, touted unproven cures for the coronavirus and called for nationwide protests against his political enemies. Social media companies removed some of their posts about the coronavirus.
Then last week, on the eve of nationwide protests, it issued a so-called interim measure, a type of emergency order meant to address urgent situations. Under the policy, social media companies can only remove posts that contain certain types of content, such as nudity, promoting crime, or copyright infringement. To eliminate other positions, companies had to obtain a court order.
The Bolsonaro government also placed limits on the ability of social media companies to delete user accounts, which could protect Bolsonaro from the fate suffered by his political ally, former President Donald J. Trump. Trump’s megaphone was cut off earlier this year when major social networks banned him from their sites.
Social media companies attacked the new rules, saying they would allow misinformation to spread. On Wednesday, a Twitter spokeswoman, praising the actions of the Senate and the Supreme Court, said Bolsonaro’s policy “undermines the values and consensus” of Brazilian internet laws. Facebook and YouTube declined to comment.
The Bolsonaro government did not respond to a request for comment.
Brazil’s Supreme Court has been investigating disinformation operations in the country and Bolsonaro became the target of those investigations last month. A member of the court, Judge Alexandre de Moraes, has jailed several supporters of the president for allegedly financing or inciting violence or anti-democratic acts.
Bolsonaro has called these arrests politically motivated, and Judge Moraes was the target of nationwide protests by supporters of the president this month.
In the United States, conservative politicians have tried to pass similar laws, as part of their broader battle with Silicon Valley over what they see as the censorship of right-wing voices by tech companies.
Florida passed a law in May that sought to prevent social media from removing political candidates from their sites, but a federal judge blocked it a month later. The governor of Texas signed a similar law last week.
In Brazil, the rules issued by Bolsonaro faced great difficulties.
Such provisional measures expire in 120 days unless the Brazilian Congress makes them permanent. Instead, Senate President Rodrigo Pacheco sent them back to Bolsonaro in just over a week, effectively overturning the measure.
Both the president of the Senate and the Supreme Court said that the regulation should not have been issued as an interim measure because it did not address an emergency situation and because Congress was debating a bill to regulate social media.
They also said the rules would have been bad for the country, said Carlos Affonso Souza, a professor at Rio de Janeiro State University who specializes in Internet law. “There was great concern that the online environment could become more toxic and more dangerous,” he said.
Affonso Souza said the Senate decision restricted Bolsonaro from issuing the same rules this year, but that he could try again in 2022.
Given next year’s presidential election and Bolsonaro’s low poll numbers, Santoro said he hoped the president would try something else to make sure he can continue to use the internet to spread his message.
“He’s not going to give up this fight that easily,” he said. “The Internet is very important to him.”