Crunch time in São Paulo: Can Brazil assume leadership in the debate about internet governance?

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Last year, in one of the rare moments of acting as an international agenda setter, President Dilma Rousseff called for a broad global discussion of international regulation on Internet use. Speaking at the UN General Assembly, she pointed to the need of 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.”

Rousseff may have been loath to engage in international debates since taking office, yet her attempt to assume international thought leadership was not unprecedented. Two years earlier, in her speech at the 66th UN General Assembly in 2011, she introduced the concept of the ‘Responsibility While Protecting (RwP)’ to regulate humanitarian interventions, placing Brazil in the center of an important international debate (Brazil has since disengaged from this debate.)

The President’s presentation has raised global expectations regarding Brazil's intellectual contribution to the discussion. 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.

The first big test will take place on Wednesday, when the Brazilian government will host the Internet governance event NETmundial in São Paulo. The city will temporarily turn into the "world's capital of internet governance", as Ronaldo Lemos, one of Brazil's leading experts on the topic, wrote today in Folha de São Paulo.

The information technology secretary at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation Virgílio Almeida, has remarked that Brazil has the authority to be a leader in the subject of Internet governance:

"Not a lot of countries have a body like the [Brazilian Internet steering committee] CGI.br, which is a truly multistakeholder organization that has been in place for over 20 years and provided the source of the principles that will shape next week's discussions."

While it may be unrealistic to expect this week's meeting to produce a concrete proposal for a global internet bill of rights, the conference's success will depend on its host's capacity to structure and take forward a highly complex debate. Bringing the world's leading thinkers to one city is a good first step to get the conversation started. 600 delegates from 85 countries will attend, representing governments, civil society and the private sector. Yet, more is necessary for Brazil to establish itself as a thought leader. Almeida is fully aware of this: "We are sowing the seeds of a debate that has only just begun. But we also want concrete results, real actions to come out of this event", he says.

Brazil’s attempt to act as an agenda-setter during the discussion about humanitarian intervention 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:

The Case against Brazil’s Retrenchment

Brazilian foreign policy: Game over?

Is Brazil abandoning its global ambitions?