Can Brazil assume leadership in the debate about internet governance?

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"Brazil shows the way" The Hindu, an Indian newspaper, wrote when Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff canceled her state visit to the United States in October, in what was the most explicit repudiation of U.S. spying activities. As expected, Rousseff went a step further in her speech at the 68th UN General Assembly, accusing the United States of violating international law by its massive collection of personal information of Brazilian citizens and economic espionage targeted on the country's key industries.

Rousseff said that

we are (...) confronting a case of grave violations of human rights and civil liberties as well as the invasion and capture of secret information about the activities of companies and above all, disrespect for the national sovereignty of my country (...) personal data of citizens was intercepted indiscriminately. Corporate information – often of high economic and even strategic value – was at the centre of espionage activity.

Remembering her fight against the military dictatorship, she further stated that

In the absence of the right to privacy, there can be no true freedom of expression and opinion, and therefore no effective democracy. In the absence of the respect for sovereignty, there is no basis for the relationship among nations.

Rousseff's speech was bold, no doubt. "Forget RwP, the new playground for Brazil's norm entrepreneurship is internet governance" Thorsten Benner of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) commented moments after her presentation. Indeed, it will be thanks to Rousseff that internet governance - aside from a potential thawing in the US-Iran relationship - will be the big story of this year's UN General Assembly.

"The time", according to Dilma Rousseff,

is ripe to create the conditions to prevent cyberspace from being used as a weapon of war, through espionage, sabotage and attacks against systems and infrastructure of other countries.

Rousseff promised that Brazil would reinforce its electronic security and called for a broad global discussion of international regulation of Internet use and governance through the U.N. A new global legal system to govern the internet, which can assure "freedom of expression, privacy of the individual and respect for human rights, the neutrality of the network, guided only by technical and ethical criteria, rendering it inadmissible to restrict it for political, commercial, religious or any other purposes."

Similar to her speech at the 66th UN General Assembly two years ago, when Brazilian President introduced the concept of the 'Responsibility While Protecting' to regulate humanitarian interventions, Rousseff thus took the initiative and placed Brazil in the center of another important international debate - that about the future of internet governance. This is indicative of a growing willingness to play a key role in international affairs.

At the same time, Rousseff's presentation has also raised global expectations considerably. She asked the United Nations to take the lead in regulating electronic technology, yet Brazil will have to take the first step in presenting proposals for a "civilian multilateral framework" for the governance and use of the internet and to protect web-based data.

Brazil's credibility as a global actor will, to no small degree, depend on its capacity to follow-up on such promises and make a meaningful contribution to this highly complex debate. As I have argued before in the debate about RwP, Brazil's attempt to act as an agenda-setter may have been useful to provide a glimpse of what Brazil is capable of on a global scale. Between 2011 and 2012, despite Brazil's limited hard power, it temporarily exercised international leadership in the debate about humanitarian intervention. Just like back then, Brazil will have to prepare for a tough discussion, which is likely to include fierce criticism from many sides.

Read also:

Why Dilma is right to say no

Is Brazil ready to play hardball?

The U.S. Has More to Lose (The New York Times – Room for Debate)]

Photo Credit:  Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR.