Brazil’s plan to store its data locally threatens the global Internet, experts say

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Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, a staunch opponent of US mass surveillance, garnered praise for her initiatives against mass Internet monitoring on the international stage. But a plan included in a national law that would force Internet companies to store Brazilian data within the country’s borders has been much less popular. Internet experts fear the consequences for a truly global Internet.

Over the past months, the Brazilian government has been exceptionally vocal in its criticism of US mass surveillance. In September, Rousseff canceled a visit to Washington in protest against American spying, and instead traveled to New York to condemn US surveillance practices at the UN. Since then, the Brazilian government announced it will host an international Internet governance summit in 2014, put forward a UN resolution on online privacy, and accelerated work on a national bill of Internet rights called the Marco Civil.

But a plan to nationalize data centers, which was tacked onto the Marco Civil, worries Internet experts, who believe it goes against both the interests of the global Internet and Brazilian Internet users.

The cost of local storage
First to complain against the proposal were the companies who would be obligated to build new servers to continue operations in Brazil, at high costs.

Rafik Dammak, a Tunisian engineer and participant in ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), an organization responsible for part of the Internet’s technical infrastructure, considers these concerns legitimate. “Such a data center is a large investment,” he warns.

Dammak also points out that the protectionist policy is not an option for every country. “Maybe it’s possible for Brazil because it’s a big country, but I don’t think that’s the answer for developing or small countries like mine,” he states. He believes that in many places companies would rather skip services than build expensive data centers. This might create a digital divide between the data security of developed and developing countries.

A dangerous trend
Internet experts outside of Brazil are also concerned that the Brazilian model might provide a justification for other data-hungry governments to create their own walled-off Internet.

Gbenga Sesan, a Nigerian Internet consultant and Cyber Steward at the Canada Centre for Global Security Studies: “The risk in what Brazil is doing is it could become an excuse for other people to say: Let’s go local. It’s really a very dangerous trend for others to pick up on.”

While he doesn’t see the Nigerian government adapting a similar policy anytime soon, he believes that “You can’t put it past any government.”

Dammak thinks that once more data is stored at a national level, it will also be hard for a government to resist taking advantage of the opportunity to censor and monitor more, even if intentions are good at the outset. “In the case of Brazil, I don’t think they want to increase surveillance, but they might end up in the same way because of the way they designed their network.”

Sesan sees a need to move beyond government intentions, and address larger questions about how the Internet should function. Sesan: “Do we want an Internet as a global Internet, or an Internet as a collection of countries’ smaller Internets?

“[The latter] is not the kind of Internet that people envisioned when they started working on the idea of global interconnection in the early days,” Sesan says. “That’s definitely not the Internet that I want to be on.” 

Threatening for Brazilian users
Joana Varon Ferraz, a researcher at the Center for Technology and Society of the Getulio Vargas Foundation (CTS-FGV) in Brazil, is critical for other reasons. Storing data locally does not prevent surveillance at a national level, so without laws that protect Brazilians against such monitoring, Varon Ferraz believes the provision is “threatening for Brazilian users.”

“As long we don’t have a data protection bill, which should be a priority for the next month, Brazilian users are vulnerable to surveillance or to have their data requested in a way that doesn’t respects due process,” says Varon Ferraz. Such fears are not unwarranted: during the protests in Brazil earlier this year, the Brazilian government was rumored to monitor citizen’s private online communications, such as chats on Whatsapp.

Dammak agrees, and urges Brazilians to consider how quickly political goodwill can change. “For some of our Brazilian friends I understand that they are proud of what’s happening, but they should be careful. Your first danger is local, not someone in a remote country. As a Tunisian, it was my government who perpetrated surveillance and censorship on me, not the US.”

A tool for, not against, surveillance
Marília Maciel, also a Brazilian researcher at the CTS-FGV, believes that the proposal is unrelated to the revelations of US mass surveillance altogether, “although it has been sold to society as a measure to protect our privacy.”

She says that what lies behind this provision “is actually the fact that Brazilian authorities want to have access to information and to be able to move forward on criminal persecution.”

While Brazilian authorities currently have to work through slow and bothersome international legal treaties to acquire their citizens’ data, storing such data at local servers would make it much easier for police and government to tap into Brazilian data streams directly.

Varon Ferraz also believes the plan won’t even stop US spying practices. She expects that the local data servers will function as a mirror of data which will also be stored in the US, or that the US government can still request data stored in Brazil because companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft are American and abide by American laws. “Either way, the data will go to the US,” Varon Ferraz states.