Glenn Greenwald lives in Brazil. Here’s how Brazilians feel about his reporting.

August 22, 2013

Ronaldo Lemos. (Photo by Joi Ito)

Brazil has played a prominent role in the ongoing drama of Edward Snowden's revelations of NSA privacy violations. Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who received many of Snowden's leaked documents, moved in Brazil several years ago to be with his partner, Brazilian David Miranda. Miranda traveled to Germany to confer with Laura Poitras, a journalist and confidant of Edward Snowden. But on his way back, as he was trying to change planes in London, he was detained by British authorities, held for nine hours, and grilled about Greenwald's reporting.

How do Brazilians feel about this? To find out, I asked Ronaldo Lemos, a professor at the Fundação Getulio Vargas Law school in Rio de Janiero. Lemos is a prominent legal scholar in Brazil, and has also spent time studying technology policy in the United States, including periods at Princeton and Harvard. We spoke via Skype on Tuesday. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Timothy B. Lee: How have people in Brazil reacted to Edward Snowden's revelations?

Ronaldo Lemos: The original reaction on the part of the Brazilian government to the Snowden case was very strong. The government came forward saying that there has been a violation of human rights and of sovereignty. Especially after Bolivian President Evo Morales was detained.

Then people asked what are you going to do about that? Following this strong rhetoric on the part of the government, last week there were quite a few public hearings in Congress where basically all the Internet companies were invited. Google, Facebook, and Twitter [were invited to testify]. Glenn Greenwald was called to testify before Congress.

Then came the news that Greenwald's partner was detained in the London airport. That created a lot of controversy here in Brazil. There was coverage in prime time news and newspapers. All the newspapers today [Tuesday] have their front page coverage about this. The Brazilian foreign minister has summoned the British ambassador requesting explanation why this citizen was detained. The coverage in Brazil is saying that this is an attack on journalism. People are asking, "After the war on terrorism, do we have a war on journalism?" There is a perception that the British authorities went too far in detaining the partner. People were saying why do you want to intimidate a journalist? Why do you want to shoot the messenger?

You mentioned the incident involving the airplane of Bolivian president Evo Morales. Can you tell me more about how that affected public opinion in Latin America?

Evo Morales was coming back from Europe and his plane was detained because people were saying Snowden might be on the plane. That was very important. The government had reacted strongly, but then after Morales was detained in Europe, things really escalated here. Countries that were not considering giving him asylum like Venezuela quickly decided to grant Snowden asylum. That triggered an even stronger reaction. As a result of that, not only Venezuela, Bolivia, but also Brazil, went to the United Nations and filed a complaint on behalf of the countries in the region, regarding both the Snowden case, and the incident with the Bolivian president. They used all the diplomatic channels in order to express their indignation.

Did Snowden release any information specifically about NSA spying on Brazil?

There have been quite a few leaks about that. For instance there was a leak saying that the submarine cables between Brazil and the U.S. and other countries were being spied on. There was wiretapping on them. There were also leaks saying that Brazilian e-mails were being read and accessed through either PRISM or one of the other programs. So there were some specific leaks that had to do specifically with Brazil and Latin American countries. They were also being targeted by the authorities. The official response on the part of the U.S. government was to say this is also serving to protect Brazilian citizens against terrorism.

How have these revelations affected domestic Brazilian politics?

This whole story is causing a backlash in terms of Internet regulation in Brazil. There's a frenzy, people trying to regulate the Internet as quick as they can. The Marco Civil project [legislation guaranteeing civil rights in the use of the Internet] became a top priority for the government.

The government is now introducing changes in the project that are quite problematic. One of them mandates that companies that store any type of Brazilian data have their servers physically located in Brazil. The idea of the government is that having the servers here will make them available for the Brazilian courts. But this is a bad idea because it will create huge costs for companies.

Imagine if Brazil required every company that has Brazilian data in storage to have a server located physically here. That breaks the Internet because you remove from companies the ability to make these decisions based on efficiency. When you're deciding where to have your servers, you're doing it in a way that's cost-effective. Imagine if other countries reciprocate, if [every country says] you have a Brazilian Internet company, they have to have servers in my country. The potential for balkanization is very high.

What other regulations have been proposed in the wake of the Snowden revelations?

Other provisions that were introduced in the bill have to do with expanding Brazilian jurisdiction to Internet companies that have subsidiaries in Brazil. If Google opens an office, their parent company will be on the hook for the Brazilian jurisdiction. Critics are saying this will actually be an incentive for companies not to have an office in the country. Why open an office and then you have this expanded idea of jurisdiction.

Regulatory agencies like the National Telecommunications Agency, Brazil's equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission, are stepping into the picture and trying to fill the regulatory void with regulation without this [legislation] being discussed in Congress. The agency is feeling empowered and legitimated by the Snowden case and saying, "We have jurisdiction and we're going to regulate them ourselves."

The way I see it, there are some dark clouds on the horizon in terms of regulation. Huge backlash because of the Snowden case. We will see some very not very well thought forms of regulation coming from Brazil and a change in the way Brazil positions itself in terms of Internet freedom or regulation.

We know there's extensive intelligence cooperation between the United States and allies such as the United Kingdom and Canada. Does anything like that happen between the United States and Brazil?

Actually no. Data requests are supposed to go through a [Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty]. So whenever the U.S. needed data stored in Brazil, Brazil said you have to use MLAT. That might take a long time, the MLAT is not an easy instrument. The Brazilian authorities were asking for GMail information from Google. The court said, "You have to give me this information that was on GMail." Google said, "The data is in the U.S. You have to go through MLAT."

The court was infuriated because they though Google was ignoring the Brazilian jurisdiction, they wanted the data right away. They wanted to extend the jurisdiction to the parent company. [But Google said], "if we comply with your court order we're going to violate US law." So that was the initial point about expanded jurisdiction. Through the official channels, there was not that much exchange of data. There was cooperation and treaties that facilitate that cooperation. But having access to data bilaterally, both U.S. on the part of Brazil and vice versa, has not been an easy thing and has become a conflicted issue because of the Internet companies.

Why do you think the U.S. and Brazil don't have a closer relationship?

It's an interesting foreign policy issue. Certainly Brazil and the U.S. are allies. Brazil sides with the U.S. on many issues in terms of international and foreign policy. Human rights, some pillars to the U.S. foreign policy issues.

But Brazil has tried to position itself as a Southern power. Brazil has always refused to be part of free trade agreements that would involve the U.S. because it was basically giving priority to integrating with the regional countries. That's why we have Mercosur and we're not part of NAFTA, which are pan-American trade agreements. That was done in contrast a little bit with the U.S. position.

Mostly, Brazil and the U.S. are absolutely allies and they stand for the same values and rights. In terms of Internet freedom, the U.S. has been seen as an example and the U.S. laws and how the U.S. regulates the Internet, were considered examples and standards. When Hillary Clinton was traveling the world and saying how important the Internet was for democracy, that resonated a lot here.

The Snowden case has been a huge blow on that relationship. When the Snowden case happened, there was a high level of distrust. There's a feeling that it's been hard to follow the U.S. lead because of the allegations on the part of Snowden. Brazil might distance itself from the U.S. position even further.

Do you think Brazil will protect Glenn Greenwald's right to report on Snowden's NSA revelations?

Brazil stands absolutely for press freedom. Brazil has a pretty strong freedom of the press structure. Brazil was a military dictatorship for so many years, we had our press censored by the government. Since Brazil re-democractized, there is this worry that we will never do that again. So press freedom has become a very important value in the country. Of course it's still to be seen how that will translate into a digital environment. I think that's where most of the threats against press freedom come from. But in terms of the traditional press, Brazil's pretty strong.

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