Brazil confronts Google – and it’s personal

A top Google executive was arrested in Brazil when the company refused to remove YouTube videos that made accusations against a local mayoral candidate. Felipe Correa discusses the case.

The case

On 26 September 2012 police arrested the country president of Google Brazil, Fabio Jose Silva Coelho, in São Paulo after Google refused to take down videos that attacked Alcides Bernal, a local mayoral candidate of the Progressive Party in Mato Grosso do Sul, during the election period. The videos show documents of lawsuits in which the candidate is alleged to have instigated an abortion, assaulted a minor while drunk and committed the crime of illicit enrichment.

The case started when Bernal filed a complaint to the electoral court asking Google, Facebook and Yahoo to remove two videos deemed insulting and defamatory. The videos in question were found to violate Article 326 of the electoral law, which criminalises the violation of one’s dignity during an election. Facebook and Yahoo removed the links immediately but Google appealed the ruling.

The company refused to take down the videos, arguing: “the contents were not negative electoral propaganda”. A few days later, the electoral court stressed that if Google refused to remove the videos, the company’s legal representative would be arrested and access to YouTube would be blocked entirely. This is the punishment online media face for not obeying court decisions regarding electoral matters in Brazil. Google then filed a petition saying threats made by the court were illegal and violated constitutional principles of legal defense.

As the videos remained online, the court ordered that YouTube be blocked in Mato Grosso do Sul for 24 hours and Google’s top executive in Brazil be arrested. In the ruling, the judge called Google’s attitude “wilful, unjustifiable, reprehensible and ignominious”. The judge stated that Google has no jurisdictional power to judge whether the videos were libellous or to decide whether or not to comply with a court order.

Coelho was released on the same day after pledging to appear before the court for legal proceedings. In response to the arrest, Google filed an injunction arguing that the court had violated its constitutional right to free speech. However, the company eventually took down the videos on 26 September 2012, after the arrest. In a post on the official Google Brazil blog, Coelho stated: “We are deeply disappointed that we have never had the full opportunity to argue in court that these were legitimate free speech videos and should remain available in Brazil. Despite all this, we will continue to campaign for free expression globally.”

Author opinion

This isn't the first time Google has fallen foul of Brazilian law. Google’s Transparency Report points out that “government requests for content removal are high in Brazil relative to other countries partly because of the popularity of our social networking website, orkut”. The report shows that 249 of the 554 takedown requests between July and December 2011 were for defamation charges.

The videos’ producers claimed to be reporting publicly available court documents concerning the mayoral candidate. The question of whether these documents were false or not was never raised. This is an important point to define in determining the legitimacy of the videos.

Brazilian law does not provide safe harbour for internet service providers regarding third-party content. Such intermediary liability protections are sorely needed. Though Google only hosted the videos in question, the company rather than the videos’ producers were the target of court orders.

- Felipe Correa

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Comments (2)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. Google needs to obey what Brazilian governments asks them. In some particular situations, Google shouldn’t be eager to show everything to publicly. In this circumstances, government might be thought that this video would harm the something so it would be removed from google and other social sites. Facebook and yahoo obeyed to remove this video, but google refuses to some reasons which it is against the freedom of speech. This is google policy of course but I believe that is doesn’t necessary to show this kind of video as a freedom of media or something else.

  2. O Google derrubou a liminar dada pela Justiça de São Paulo que proibiu a exibição de Inocência dos Muçulmanos http://veja.abril.com.br/blog/radar-on-line/internet/proibido-em-2012-video-que-satiriza-isla-autorizado-a-ser-exibido-no-you-tube-brasileiro/

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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