The head of Brazil’s electoral authority, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, delivered a stern warning to the world’s top tech companies on Wednesday, saying he would not let them undermine Brazil’s democracy.
Moraes’ comments – which included the assertion that global tech giants “believe no jurisdiction in the world can oversee them” – reflect growing global debates about whether the firms are doing enough to police their platforms.
They also constitute an ambitious new battle line for Moraes, a judge whose previous crusades have included squaring up to far-right former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s efforts to undermine the country’s electoral system during last year’s presidential election.
“The big tech platforms have been challenged and they will be penalized. They will be held accountable, to guarantee the voter’s freedom to vote,” Moraes told judges and public servants studying electoral law, without naming any specific firms.
Shortly after his speech, Moraes threatened to suspend and fine messaging app Telegram nationwide unless it complied with an order to remove criticism it had made on its platform about a proposed internet regulation bill seeking to control the spread of disinformation online.
Telegram subsequently took down the message, saying in a statement that the Supreme Court had ordered it to tell users that its message had “distorted” the debate in “an attempt to induce and instigate users to coerce lawmakers.”
Later, Telegram said “it would likely no longer be able to continue working in Brazil if the law were passed with the proposed wording.”
“While we complied with the order to remove our messages, Telegram stands behind its analysis and believes that laws that will affect the lives of tens of millions of people require public attention and a reasonable period of debate,” it said.
Brazil is among countries taking a global lead in pressuring tech giants to crack down harder on users it sees as spreading disinformation.
Moraes has already fined Telegram once this year for failing to comply with a court order that called for accounts of Bolsonaro supporters to be frozen, and ordered the suspension of the app last year in a ruling that was revoked days later.
Dubbed the “Fake News Law,” the internet regulation bill seeks to put the onus on internet companies, search engines and social messaging services to find and report illegal material, instead of leaving it to the courts, and proposes hefty fines for failures to do so.
Global tech firms have campaigned against the bill, arguing it would open the door to censorship. It would also endanger free services on their platforms if they are obliged to pay content providers and for copyright on material posted on their sites, they say.
Last week, Alphabet’s Google added a link on its search engine in Brazil connecting to blogs against the bill and asking users to lobby their representatives.
Brazil’s government and judiciary said such actions amounted to undue interference in the congressional debate.
Justice Minister Flavio Dino said: “The law must prevail over the digital Far West” and he gave Google two hours to remove the link or face a big fine.
Google pulled it in minutes, while defending its right to communicate its concerns through what it called “marketing campaigns” on its platforms.
Facing a wave of criticism from conservative lawmakers, who say the government plan is to censure its opponents, and lacking support in the lower house, the bill was taken off the fast track last week and there is no date for it to be put to the vote.