We must protect democracy in cyberspace

Graciela Selaimen

Recent experience in Brazil suggests the online civic sphere is the new surveillance battleground. Philanthropy needs to take steps to safeguard digital rights in the country 

In June 2013 massive demonstrations took to the streets of several cities in Brazil, marked by new patterns of protest. For the first time, calls for demonstrations were not led by traditional actors such as trade unions and political parties; instead, they were decentralised and distributed across digital platforms. Social networks became the preferred space for the urban population to inform itself about what happened on the streets. Groups dedicated to organising protests operated online, often without any face-to-face interaction. Violent police repression was documented and denounced by citizens through mobile phones and digital platforms, and new independent online media outlets emerged to challenge the mainstream media’s stories attempting to criminalise demonstrators. Protesters who were arrested reported that besides IDs, telephone numbers and addresses, their social media usernames and passwords were requested. The digital realm was established as a space for civic engagement.

In 2014, the same thing happened with anti-World Cup demonstrations. This time, however, the police crackdown went beyond rubber bullets and stun grenades: there were arrests before the World Cup started, as wiretaps and other surveillance tools were used to prevent clashes. Activists’ profiles on social media were systematically monitored. Similarly, in the wake of repressive measures implemented in the name of security, an anti-terrorism bill was passed prior to the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, attracting strong criticism from progressive civil society for potentially criminalising protests, protesters and dissent.

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