Bruno Magrani, a researcher at the Center for Technology and Society at Rio de Janeiro's Getulio Vargas Foundation, said that unlike the United States and some other countries, Brazil doesn't have legal protections for online service providers that host content provided by third parties.
There is pending legislation that would provide some protection for intermediaries such as Google. Earlier this month the company joined Facebook and online retail site MercadoLivre in sending an open letter supporting the passage of the law, called Marco Civil.
"Marco Civil establishes that providers of Internet applications are not responsible for content published by users," the letter says. "Various economic, social and legislative factors justify not holding providers responsible; without that protection, the use of online applications and platforms would be limited, which would be a loss to users."
While the measure would create some protections, it would not resolve the legal tangle facing Google's Coelho or prevent the situation from recurring, Magrani said.
The Marco Civil is general legislation, and could still be trumped by more specific electoral laws. Those laws treat an Internet platform such as Google as if it were a newspaper or a television station, holding it responsible for its content.
"It's a very serious situation," Magrani said. "Brazil needs to change its electoral law to accommodate the nature and the characteristics of the Internet. The Internet cannot be treated in the same way as traditional media."
First, he said, an Internet company cannot evaluate all the content it carries in the same way a newspaper or television channel can because of the sheer volume.
Second, "the Internet has no editor. And we don't want an editor," Magrani said.
He said asking a company to determine what users can upload is a dangerous step that could undermine freedom of information.
"If we continue threatening to jail heads of companies who don't verify content before it goes on the Internet, we will end up living in a state of censorship," he said. "If the company is running a high risk, it'll start posting less and less material. ... If companies start to feel afraid of retaliation, they'll start censoring."
The lack of protections for Internet platforms can also have a chilling effect on the development of small- and medium-size high-tech companies in Brazil that don't have the resources of big companies like Google, Magrani said.
The federal government is investing heavily to promote the tech sector, but Brazilian legislators need to diminish legal risks for startups, he said.
Maria Clara Garcaz, a 20-year-old university student in Rio de Janeiro, expressed worries about the court action.
"It's like we live in a silent, disguised dictatorship. When we had our real dictatorship, at least you knew for certain what you could and couldn't say," Garcaz said. "Political speech can be censored at any time and it's moving into the Internet, exactly where people speak out."
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