Brazilians were surprised when they went to the Google homepage. Under the familiar search field, a link said: “The fake news bill can make your internet worse.” Whoever clicked on the link was taken to a Google blog that criticized draft law 2630, which was to be voted on Brazilian Congress the next day.
The search homepage, used by more than 90% of 160 million internet users in Brazil, also claimed in another link that “the fake news bill can create confusion about what is true and what is a lie in Brazil”.
Known as “the fake news law”, the bill criticized by Google enhances transparency requirements and forces social media, search engines and messaging services to detect and take down illegal content, posing heavy fines if they don’t. It also obliges tech companies to pay for journalistic content used, in a bargaining scheme like the one adopted in Australia.
Critics have argued that the bill was not sufficiently debated in society; in the end, the vote was suspended – but not because of lack of debate. An orchestrated fake news campaign led by many of the same pro-Bolsonaro influencers that tried to overturn Brazilian elections – allied themselves with Google, Facebook and Tiktok against regulation and scared off internet users by branding the proposed law “the censorship bill”.
Newspaper Folha de S Paulo reported that Google’s strategy included sending emails to YouTubers saying there would be less money to invest in their channels and asking them to talk to their Congress. The tech giant also fumbled with search results, prominently showing its own blog post and other articles that were critical of the bill, according to a study by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Google denied manipulating its search engine and claimed it purchased ads like everyone else. After being accused of misleading advertisement by the justice ministry, it pulled the link, but defended its actions by saying that all Brazilians “have the right to be part of this conversation”. Google added, “we are committed to communicating our concerns about bill 2630 publicly and transparently.”
Many users reported that the search autocomplete was also acting strange. When I typed the number of the bill, one of the options was “the bill can grow misinformation online and harm users” or “the bill can impact the internet that you know”. Neither are probably common search terms; they’re really anti-regulation marketing slogans.
As the president of the the Brazilian Association of Digital Journalism (Ajor), I’ve seen the tech lobby get more and more aggressive in recent months. Tech giants have spent a great deal of time talking to all journalism associations – including us – about their concerns. After weighing all their arguments, most media players, both legacy and digital startups, decided to back the law. That’s when big tech started saying there would be no more money to give their journalism programs, similar to what they told YouTube creators.
The strong-arming is not only bad for the relationship between journalists and tech platforms. It has provided a chance for Bolsonaro allies to gain momentum again, after being the focus of a large investigation about a disinformation-fueled campaign that led a mob to storm government buildings in Brasília in January. The fake news campaign against the law – which even claimed that the Bible would be censored – was led by the same people who led a fake news campaign to subvert election results.
This is not just a matter that should concern Brazilians. What is happening in my country is just the last in a series of events that show how tech giants are prepared to be more aggressive as dozens of countries – from Indonesia to Nigeria – debate adopting greater tech regulation. In Canada and Australia, Facebook and Google went as far as to remove news content from their platforms to put pressure on the media industry. In the meantime, they seem to have abandoned any pretense that they do not mediate content.
Which is why it baffles me that US media and public opinion are not following these actions and denouncing them. While American congressmen are threatening to block TikTok as a Chinese state agent, US companies are flexing their muscles in foreign democracies that only want a way out of the mess tech has created.
To be sure, it was the US’s failure to regulate its own tech companies that allowed for the present state of the world, in which a handful of companies effectively control the public debate in most countries with unprecedented power to manipulate opinions and disrupt lawmakers’ efforts to regulate them. They have the power to keep or shatter a democracy. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, if American citizens and politicians will not dare to keep their own companies in check, who will?
Source : TheGuardian