Reality Check: A look into arrest of Google’s Brazil CEO

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Editor’s NoteWelcome to our weekly Reality Check column. We’ve gathered a group of visionaries and veterans in the mobile industry to give their insights into the marketplace.

Much was said in September this year about the arrest of Fábio Coelho, Google Brazil’s CEO. To understand his arrest, we must understand the reasons behind the Brazilian judge’s action. The argument revolves around a video that was uploaded by a user on the YouTube site stating how Alcides Bernal, a mayoral candidate in a city in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, is supposedly involved in misappropriation.

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Offended, the mayoral candidate turned to the electoral judiciary, claiming that the allegations made in the video were unfounded and that it was an attempt to damage his campaign. The judge then issued an interlocutory judgment requesting Google to take the video off the site, which it did not.  Based on Google’s disregard of the judgement, and according to the Brazilian Electoral Code, article 347 and the Penal Code, article 330, the judge issued a writ for the executive’s arrest for disobedience. The judge based the arrest itself on the noncompliance of Google to the determination to remove the video from the site, nothing more.

Google argued that they have no responsibility over what users post. This conflict generated an ongoing worldwide discussion about freedom of speech and how much responsibility these kind of websites have for the content uploaded by their users.

Many similar cases have gone through the Brazilian judiciary system, and some judges have understood that Google does not have responsibility for the content published by its users, but other judges don’t see it the same way. To settle this discussion, there is a bill before the Brazilian House of Representatives called “Marco Civil Regulatório da Internet no Brasil” (Regulatory Civil Milestone of the Internet in Brazil), that states that sites are not responsible for the content posted by third parties; however, if there is a judicial determination to remove certain content posted by a user (a third party) from a site, it has to be done. This bill might settle the different ways judges have been analyzing and dealing with cases like these.

In my evaluation, Google is really not responsible for the content posted on their sites; however, if there is a writ stating that the video has to be removed from the site, it should be followed. Google should have taken action. The issue here is not about whether they are responsible or not, the point is that if there has been a decision by a judge, they have to obey it. Simple as that. The crime committed by the executive was disobedience. As for the video, it is still online, and many more have appeared, some with the claim that the Internet is not a place for judiciary interference.

In the book Who Controls the Internet, Harvard law professor Jack Goldmith and Columbia University law professor Tim Wu claim that initially it was thought that the Internet should not to be regulated by the state; however, with the evolution of the digital era and the increase of usage, it became clear that it could and needed to have some regulation.

In the book, the authors mention a situation in France when Marc Knobel, who has devoted his life to fighting neo-Nazism, discovered that Yahoo was auctioning Nazi items, which according to the French Law, is illegal. Knobel then sued Yahoo on behalf of the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism. Initially, Yahoo claimed that it could not know where the users were, but experts found that this tracking could be done by the IP address. After a long battle, the judge found Yahoo guilty and determined that all Nazi content pages should be blocked for French users, and after some time, all sites related to Nazism were blocked. This example goes to show that most things can be tracked and regulated. Everywhere we go online leaves a trail and that includes companies’ actions as well. However, there is much yet to understand about how this technology is affecting our lives.

More and more, we see the necessity of legislation regulating the Internet. And people shouldn’t forget that although we have freedom of speech, it doesn’t mean that we can say whatever we want, especially when your speech violates other people’s rights. On the Internet the idea is the same. We have freedom of speech, but it is more complex. Freedom ends when another person is disrespected. As the judge that issued the executive’s arrest, Amaury da Silva, stated when commenting on the Internet: “it is not a territory free from responsibilities.”

Márcio Cots is a lawyer, university professor and participant in the Ilaw Program (Cyberlaw) at Harvard Law School. He is also partner of COTS Advogados, specializing in Digital Law.

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