On Thursday, there was a serious threat that the entire Facebook domain would be blocked in Brazil because of a court dispute between two individuals. In a late-night court session yesterday, Facebook backed down and promised to remove the uploaded photographs that were at the centre of the dispute.
The crisis is over – for now. And yet another Judge has enjoyed his few minutes in the media spotlight by taking on a social media leviathan.
But where does this leave Brazil?
Brazilian legislators are starting to look more than a little out of touch with the way the world functions when a simple dispute over Facebook can spiral into a case that could have closed off the social network to the entire country.
Facebook pleaded that they merely carry the content that users upload and they already have procedures in place to deal with offensive content such as pornography. The firm's argument is that a messenger is very different to a publisher – in the same way that your national post office is not responsible or accountable when they deliver offensive or illegal material in the mail.
Facebook also argued that its legal entities are located outside of Brazil – in the US and Ireland – and should not therefore be called in front of a Brazilian court to answer questions about content uploaded by Brazilian users. However, the judge in the center of the latest dispute, Régis Rodrigues Bonvicino, said: "If Facebook operates in Brazil, it is subject to Braziian laws."
The judge also cited the recent news that President Dilma Rousseff and the energy company Petrobras had been subject to surveillance by the US government. Once again making it appear that he was more interested in seeing how many times his name might appear online rather than making any serious connection between the cases.
It is utterly ridiculous that this case should have been brought to this point and for the judge to be talking of a dispute between neighbours and international espionage in the same breath. It can be difficult to police the content on some social networks — any celebrity that has suffered abuse by trolling knows this — but national laws such as slander or libel can still be applied locally. These networks are even able to accommodate very specific government requests, such as the German ban on Nazi iconography.
Networks such as Facebook are not just places for kids to share the latest One Direction video. Millions of people now depend on social networks to communicate with their family, find a job, and even to perform their job.
If the Brazilian courts think that they can just switch Facebook on and off at will then perhaps they should start explaining this attitude to companies like Coca Cola, who communicate regularly with 74 million of their customers using Facebook. Even Petrobras has recently posted on their Facebook page that one of the best things about their 60th birthday was seeing that they now have over a million fans on Facebook.
These networks are now stitched into the fabric of our society and Brazil is second only to the US in the adoption of social networking. Our representatives in the Brazilian legislature urgently need to understand that the free flow of information is a critical part of our national infrastructure.
For us to still have lawmakers who do not understand the tools of the twenty-first century makes us look like a laughing stock — and that’s a serious problem when investment flows to societies that are free and open, not those who will shut down social networks overnight.