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Why Brazil Is Actually Winning The Internet

As the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics bring unprecedented attention — and controversy — Brazil has been shaped by a sprawling, unique digital culture that may be more socially and politically active than any other country's.

In 2004, the same year Facebook launched at Harvard, Google launched a social network called Orkut that changed internet history — at least in Brazil.

John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was one of the first of the web’s elite digerati to receive an invitation. Barlow was working at the time with Brazil’s minister of culture, musician Gilberto Gil, to expand the range of Brazilian music available to remix and share online, and he decided to give all 100 of his invites to Brazilian friends. Two years later, 11 million Brazilians were on Orkut — out of only 14 million internet users in the whole country. (By comparison, the U.S. had more than 10 times as many Americans online by then, but only 14% of them were using social networks.)

“There were blogs and portals back then,” says Bia Granja, co-founder of YouPix, a website and festival dedicated to celebrating Brazilian web culture. “But when Orkut came, it pulled everyone in. There were people from rural parts of Brazil who didn’t have an official government ID card but had an Orkut profile. We needed this form of expression; it was the door of entry to the internet for 82% of Brazil’s population.”

Ten years later, with their country more visible internationally than ever thanks to successful but polarizing World Cup and Olympics bids, Brazilians are arguably the most hyper-social people on the internet. They spend twice as much time using social media as the global average, and more time online than watching TV. Last year, they doubled the time they spent on Facebook, while global usage declined by 2%.

Brazil is the fourth-largest mobile phone market in the world, with 1.4 cell phones for every citizen, and Brazilians spend more time on social media than email, web browsers, or video sharing. Half of Brazil’s internet population is under 30, and almost all of them use social media. Brazil is now the second-largest market for Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr other than the U.S. It took Facebook seven years to take the No. 1 spot from Orkut, which is still the social network of choice for 6 million Brazilians, or 1 in 20 Brazilians online. (On June 30, 2014, citing an increased popularity in other social networks, Google announced it would be shutting the social network down Sept. 30, 2014.) Last year, the Wall Street Journal declared Brazil the "Social Media Capital of the Universe."

Brazil was culturally primed for such an online impact because, very generally speaking, Brazilians are an extraordinarily warm and friendly people. They are family-focused and social and like to do things en masse. Millions of Brazilians come to the beaches on New Year's to offer white flowers to the sea goddess Iemanja; millions gather outside to celebrate Carnaval each year; and recently millions have taken to the streets protesting billions of dollars of taxpayer money that have funded World Cup and Olympic infrastructure projects while millions still live in extreme poverty.

“Brazil has always been the social model of the future,” says Barlow. “Everything refers to something else that you wouldn't know anything about if your aunt hadn't told your mother something a couple of years ago about something her lover heard. Brazil is an enormous inside joke, and the internet is a mass conversation. Brazil was the internet before the internet existed.”

So then, what’s the cumulative effect of these billions of online social interactions in real life?

Mauricio Cid was one of the most popular Brazilians on Orkut until he got kicked off the site in 2008. Cid was publishing mostly humor content to more than a thousand Orkut fan communities reaching 5 million Brazilians — 20% of Brazil’s internet population at the time, making him one of Brazil’s first bloggers, albeit completely inside Orkut’s walls.

By 2008, Orkut had become one of the 10 largest websites on the planet, but Google wasn’t paying much attention to what was happening among Orkut’s mostly Brazilian users at the time. Then Google tried to run ads on Orkut (aside user-generated content) and reports quickly surfaced of those ads being displayed next to pictures of naked children and abused animals. The government filed contempt charges against Google Brazil’s executives for refusing to turn over user data to the police. Globo, the largest media company in Latin America with a near-monopoly on TV, radio, and print mediums — but not online — decided to run a TV news report going inside alleged criminal activities on Orkut, and included Cid’s Michael Jackson fan page on the list of suspicious communities.

“Most of the groups on the list were neo-Nazis and things like that,” Cid told me on a Skype call from São Paulo. “It made no sense. There was nothing criminal about my Michael Jackson community, but I was banned. So I decided to create a humor blog called Não Salvo [“Not Saved”] in 2008 so I could publish whatever I wanted, including a little ass and titties, without anyone censoring me.”

Cid was living in Santos, a beachside city two hours outside of São Paulo at the time, working odd jobs at the morgue and fixing printers. “The morgue was horrible,” Cid says. "I would have taken pictures, but that was before cell phone cameras.” Then he got a job in São Paulo and started spending his four-hour bus commute publishing content to Não Salvo from his phone. Today Cid is one of Brazil’s biggest web celebrities. “It’s a testament to how much we love to share, even with backward technology.”

Não Salvo’s site still looks like it was designed in the AOL era, with a Jesus marquee and a flaming computer mouse floating over clouds of digital detritus, despite drawing 27 million visitors a month. Visitors don’t just read on the site, they interact with it, and participate in the content creation. So better to call them participants — or fieis (“the faithful”), in Não Salvo lingo.

On a forum called Desafio Aceito (“Challenge Accepted”), the fieis mobilize by the thousands and sometimes millions for challenges like crowdsourcing a porn screenplay and plotting practical jokes on gringos. In 2010 during the South Africa World Cup, they decided one of Globo’s broadcasters, Galvão, was annoying, so they launched a campaign called #CalaBocaGalvao — which translates to “Shut up, Galvão” in Portuguese.

“We created a video with a narrator in English and everything, telling gringos that 'Cala Boca Galvão' meant to preserve an endangered species of birds in the Amazon,” Cid explains. The video showed how demand for feathers for Carnaval costumes was fueling a black market of bird trafficking and wiping out the endangered species, and urged viewers to save a bird’s life with a tweet. #CalaBocaGavao became a global top trending topic for 14 days and made it into the New York Times.

Não Salvo is also not afraid to get into darker subject matter, but mostly with a humorous, prankster edge, posting the crappiest banners the fieis have spotted at protests that have engulfed Brazil since last June, alternating images of fans with tacky face paint and protest paraphernalia. Another Não Salvo thread called Peço Perdão Pelo Vacilo (“forgive me my trespasses”) gathers videos Brazilian police put on YouTube brutally humiliating everyday citizens by forcing them to read statements asking for forgiveness for minor crimes like taking a selfie on top of a police vehicle.

If the internet refracts our own culture back to us, I asked Cid what he sees in the reflection of 27 million humor fans on Não Salvo. "The web is opening a space not just to show we have a voice online, but to show that we can unite, take down the government, express our opinions, and come together.”

Freedom of expression is a relatively new phenomenon for the current generation of Brazilians. Brazil was run by military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985; speech was repressed and regime opponents prosecuted and tortured. Brazil’s current president, Dilma Rousseff, was tortured herself by the military in 1970 for working with guerrilla groups opposing the dictatorship. Since Brazil returned to democratic rule in 1988, poverty has been halved, and combination of economic growth and socialist policies has lifted 28 million Brazilians out of extreme poverty and another 36 million into the middle class. But Brazil still ranks among the most unequal countries on the planet, and the richest 1% of the population takes in more household income than the poorest 50%.

This inequality affects Brazil's internet culture. Internet access is now ubiquitous among the richest Brazilians, but only 1 in 3 households in the new middle class have access, and it drops to 6% among Brazil’s poorest citizens. In the face of such tenacious inequality, young Brazilians are watching their government pour $25 billion in taxpayer money to fund stadiums and infrastructure projects for this summer’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. They are the most connected generation and are also the only generation currently alive that hasn’t experienced the repression of living under the dictatorship.

“When the dictatorship ended in 1985, we won the right to speak, but we didn’t win the right to be heard,” says Leonardo Eloi, a project director at Meu Rio (“My Rio”), a social mobilization platform that helps Brazilian youth in Rio de Janeiro organize around local issues they care about. “There’s a big difference between the two. So we’re creating a culture now for the government to hear its citizens.”

Alessandra Orofino and Miguel Lago launched Meu Rio in 2011 with the mission of making their city more inclusive. “Citizens need to organize themselves as intelligently, use technology as ubiquitously, and share knowledge as efficiently as the public and private institutions, in order to really participate in the definition of public policy at the city level,” Orofino wrote in an op-ed for Huffington Post last year.

In Orofino's opinion, petitions aren’t the most useful tool for social change on a city level. “Especially when you’re talking about local politics, you can’t rely on sheer aggregation of numbers as a tool for pressure,” she explains. “Many campaigns initiated by our members are talking about a specific street or public square or hospital or school that only concerns a relatively small number of citizens. Who are you going to deliver a couple of thousand signatures to?”

Meu Rio has focused on designing tools such as Multitude, which lets campaign organizers connect with volunteers for tasks like creating a sign, taking pictures, or showing up for a meeting; and Nós do Meu Rio, an initiative to connect neighbors so they can get to know one another and plan new campaigns. Their most popular organizing tool is called the Pressure Cooker. When someone creates a campaign around a particular issue, this helps them find the specific official responsible for that issue and contact them directly via email or phone. Whenever said politician’s phone line is free, Meu Rio robo-calls campaigners who provided their phone numbers and connects the call, creating a line of people calling all day long about the same issue.

In the last two and a half years, 150,000 Rio residents — overwhelmingly Brazilian youth under 34 years old — have used Meu Rio to tighten Rio’s woefully unprotective environmental protection laws, demand transparency from bus companies hiking fares, and even amend their constitution to keep officials convicted of corruption from occupying high offices in Rio, a valid concern in a country where former President Fernando Collor was impeached on corruption charges in 1992 and went on to become a senator again in 2007.

Meu Rio receives requests across Brazil to implement their tools in other cities, but only had the resources to support their work in Rio — until now. The organization received a $475,000 grant last year from the Omidyar Network, an investment firm funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar to foster advancement in government transparency and social media, and received a $500,000 grant from Google.org, the charitable investment arm of Google, to expand access to Meu Rio’s organizing tools across the country. (Incidentally the most famous recipient of Omidyar’s wealth, journalist Glenn Greenwald, also lives in Rio.)

One of the more creative uses of Meu Rio's social local mobilization tools is a crowdsourced neighborhood watch program to stop people from pilfering trolley cars in the bohemian neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Since 1877, residents in Santa Teresa and the adjacent Morro do Prazeres favela relied on the bondinho, a yellow trolley, to climb a steep hill of cobblestone switchbacks to their neighborhoods. In 2011, the trolley went off its rails and killed six people, and Rio discontinued the service indefinitely. Despite a series of promises and timelines, the city has yet to bring the historic and beloved bondinho back into operation.

Last year, bondinho aficionados started noticing that pieces of the historic trolleys were starting to show up for sale all over the city, and the only place they could have come from is the trolley warehouse in Santa Teresa. Residents started a campaign on Meu Rio demanding respect for their historic patrimony and put a plan in place to monitor what was left. Nine hundred and eighteen people put pressure on Rio’s transportation secretary to publish an inventory of the trolley warehouse, and 2,748 residents signed up to monitor a live webcam feed Meu Rio set up in a neighbor’s window overlooking the warehouse entrance. Leonardo Eloi, who handled the technical production for the campaign, says that not a single piece has gone missing since.

But Trolley parts are far from the most pressing need in a city where almost half of its residents don’t even have access to basic sanitation. “If I had to choose the most important issue in Rio,” Orofino says, “it’s that we are such a crazily unequal city, in virtually every regard.”

Rio has long had a reputation as Brazil’s Cidade Partida, or “Divided City,” and despite economic growth that has lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty, socioeconomic inequality in Rio de Janeiro has only increased in the last decade. About one-third of the city’s 6 million inhabitants live in some 1,000 favelas scattered across the city, a network of communities so diverse in topography and culture that their only commonality is a history of neglect by the state to provide even the most basic services.

While Brazilians are reticent to point out the obvious, the warped socioeconomic spectrum maps closely to race. Brazil imported almost 5 million slaves — more than 10 times the number that were forced to come to the North America — and was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery in 1888. Many early favela residents in Rio were freed slaves from the northeast who had no where else to live and settled wherever they could. Today, more than half of Brazilians identify as black or mixed and race; that percentage is higher in the favelas.

In the decade since Brazilians came online with Orkut, they’re starting to close disparity gaps with internet access that remain stubbornly persistent in the offline world, and the internet is starting to emerge as a powerful means of expression for favela residents. Since 2003, a Rio favela advocacy nonprofit Catalytic Communities (CatComm) had operated a community center in Rio’s port area. Between then and 2008, more than 1,200 leaders from 200 communities accessed computers and horizontal training, teaching one another how to use the web.

These stakes are only rising. Soon after Brazil won the Olympic bid in 2009, city officials arrived at Favela do Metrô, a small community of 700 families behind the Maracanã soccer stadium, which was founded in 1981 by workers who built the adjacent metro stop. Officials began spray-painting numbers on houses, making notes, and taking photos. “We realized we were going to have to leave,” Francecleide Costa, president of the Favela do Metrô Resident’s Association, said at the time. “But we didn’t know what to do.” On Nov. 4, police returned, forced 107 families out of their homes at gunpoint, threw their belongings into the street and started smashing windows and roofs. Their justification was to take over the land to expand the Maracanã parking lot for World Cup.

CatComm sent a volunteer to photograph the eviction, and within a few months had gathered video documentation of three other favelas in Rio’s West Zone that had been forcibly evicted to make way for the Olympic City.

“There were almost no evictions in Rio favelas for the 20 years prior, because we’ve had very strong constitutional rights since 1988,” says Theresa Williamson, who founded CatComm in 2000. According to federal law, anyone who’s been squatting on private land for more than five years without any cases brought against them is legally entitled to the land, and even has legal recourse if it’s public land. “These evictions in Rio are only made possible because the mega-events [like the World Cup and Olympics] have created a state of exception,” Williamson says, “where the city can get away with it.”

According to the Popular Committee of World Cup and the Olympics, a volunteer coalition of civil society organizations and community leaders documenting the effects of the mega-events, the eviction tally has topped 4,772 families across 37 favelas in Rio alone, and as many as 200,000 families across Brazil. Officials I spoke with at Rio’s City Hall in late 2013 denied that any illegal evictions have taken place, and Globo, Brazil’s largest media company headquartered in Rio, has largely ignored them. A search for “evictions Rio de Janeiro” on Globo.com returned only 14 news stories, four of which related to a group of residents being evicted from a botanical garden for environmental concerns in Rio’s wealthier South Zone near Globo’s headquarters.

People coming together online are capturing and telling a different story: Media activist collective MidiaNINJA, an acronym for “Independent Narratives, Journalism, and Action,” broadcast 18 different live streams of the most recent Favela do Metrô eviction alone. In 2012, Rio’s Popular Committee of World Cup and the Olympics used its Facebook page to crowdsource videos of forced evictions, asking favela leaders, digital activism networks, and local and international journalists for contributions. After gathering and verifying 114 videos of forced evictions in 21 favelas, the committee concluded that the most common problem was a violation of favela residents’ rights to information. “If each video identified by the curation represents an isolated dot in the sky,” the report concludes, “the sum of those points forms a constellation that portrays the systematic pattern of human rights violations in areas affected by forced evictions in Rio de Janeiro.”

In the wake of the 2010 evictions, CatComm began offering educational programming to favela community leaders that focused on social media — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WordPress, and Blogger. Once the network of favela leaders was connected on social media, Williamson started seeing reports of evictions popping up in her Twitter feed and Facebook posts, and launched RioOnWatch.org, a favela community watchdog site, to bring their reporting together in one place, address the general absence and frequent misrepresentation of favelas in the Brazilian media, and encourage and amplify reporting from favela residents themselves.

“All of a sudden you had kids in the North Zone posting on their private walls about evictions two hours away in the West Zone, and threads with hundreds of comments in an hour, all analyzing what was going on,” says Williamson. She estimates CatComm has worked with 300–400 of Rio’s 1,000 or so favelas. “The connections were incredible." According to Rio’s Observatory of Favelas, an NGO monitoring social inequality, 90% of favela youth in Rio de Janeiro have access to the internet, and Facebook is their primary destination. “They’re connected online, they’re very critical, and incredibly astute. They see what’s happening and they’re living the consequences," Williamson says.

RioOnWatch has since become the biggest source of news on Rio’s evictions available online. Its documentation of forced evictions in a favela called Largo do Tanque in 2012 prompted international coverage from CNN to Newsweek Japan. Williamson says that because of the presence of international media once the evictions began, the remaining eight families of Largo to Tanque received five times the compensation as the 42 who were pushed out when nobody was watching.

“Before we started doing this work, there was no favela perspective in articles about them internationally or nationally,” Williamson says. “We started seeing that we could change this narrative as international media came to Rio for the mega-events — we could create this spotlight on Rio through the 2016 Olympics. In our opinion that’s one of the only positive legacies of the games.”

This trend — a largely invisible population starting to be seen and heard — is occurring nationwide. Last June, residents of São Paulo went to the streets to protest a hike in bus fare and sparked commiseration among disenfranchised citizens across the country. Brazilians took to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube with calls to Vem pra rua (“come to the streets”), Acorda, Brasil (“wake up, Brazil”), and O gigante acordou (“we’ve wakened the giant”). An initially violent reaction from police that has become a fixture of 12 months of protests inspired a video game where protesters run away from police that gained 30,000 players in three days during last June’s protests. Within a couple of weeks, protest messages on social media had reached 79 million Brazilians online — or 4 out of 5 internet users — and brought millions of people to the protests, from public school teachers to trash workers rallying for better benefits to activists protesting billions of government spending on mega-event infrastructure projects in the face of sweeping social inequality.

“We don’t make a difference by sitting behind our computers,” said Marcelo Tas, a Brazilian journalist with more than 5 million Twitter followers, during a newscast with BandnewsTV the first week of the protests last June. “We’re meeting up in the streets. And it’s not just happening in Rio and São Paulo. Small towns in the interior are protesting. We have a whole country protesting.”

“It’s a really important moment we’re living right now,” says Bia Granja, of the YouPix festival, which gathers hundreds of thousands together at festivals across the country, and millions together online, to organize around digital issues they care about. Last year’s festival in Rio hosted debates about Brazil’s internet legislation, the persecution of the Rio funk movement, and Globo’s factually inaccurate reporting of last June’s protests, interspersed with food contests, MC battles, a well-attended workshop for YouTube content producers (and Havaianas giveaways).

“We’re seeing big changes,” Granja says. “Social networks are tools of empowerment we didn’t have before.”

As internet access expands across geographic and class divides in Brazil, the government is taking steps to regulate it, and citizens are taking steps to ensure their freedoms to use it. In 2007, Brazilian Congress was debating a cybercrime bill that would send people to jail for four years for jailbreaking their iPhones or downloading illegal music. Once the bill passed lower congress and looked like it had an actual chance to become law, a law professor at Fundação Getúlio Vargas named Ronaldo Lemos wrote an op-ed in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper arguing that what Brazilians needed instead was a bill of rights protecting their civil liberties.

In 2009, Brazil’s minister of justice approached Lemos and a group of lawyers and told them if they wanted to create a law protecting internet rights, they should do it online. Marco Civil, a landmark bill ensuring the privacy and freedom of speech of internet users, and one of the first examples of crowdsourced legislation in the world, was born.

“A lot of people do this participatory work and expect people to show up, but we decided to ask them,” Lemos explains. They used the Ministry of Justice official letterhead to send letters out to the public and solicit participation, and in a remarkably progressive move for 2009, started running Twitter searches for “Marco Civil,” and incorporating their distributed perspectives into the drafting process.

“Side by side you had the users, the telco companies, broadcasters, and trade groups, all of them debating side by side with the general public — something you generally do not see,” says Lemos. “But it took us a lot of time. It was very satisfying to hear people tell us we really heard what they had to say.”

By the time the bill was ready to go to Congress, more than 2,000 Brazilians, including librarians, LAN house owners, high school professors and bloggers, had collaboratively drafted Brazil’s Internet Bill of Rights, legally guaranteeing internet users the right to personal privacy and freedom of expression, and ensuring net neutrality. Then it got stuck.

“The bill had important language protecting net neutrality, and the telco companies didn’t like that,” Lemos says. "When Congress tried to do bad things, people would organize Twitter protests, online petitions and so on." Two years went by without a vote.

Then, in September 2013, GloboTV, Brazil’s biggest TV channel and second-largest TV network in the world behind ABC, reported that the National Security Agency was spying on President Dilma Rousseff, according to documents leaked by Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald. Rousseff was furious, canceled her planned state dinner with President Obama, and started exploring new digital security measures, including a plan to require foreign companies like Facebook and YouTube to keep their Brazilian user data on local servers inside Brazil, and a national encrypted mail service to be provided by Correios, the Brazilian equivalent of the U.S. Postal Service. They decided to tuck the new provisions into Marco Civil (although neither made it in the final legislation) and suspended voting on any other bills until Congress voted on the internet legislation.

YouPix was one of the first digital organizations to rally its community in favor of net neutrality, explaining why the provision was important to guarantee freedom of speech online, and publishing real-time updates on the bill’s status until it was passed this April.

“A study at the Fundação Getulio Vargas law school showed that for every 10% increase in a person’s digital inclusion, they are 2.2% happier,” says Granja. “In other words, just having access to a computer makes people more happy. Imagine what the social and cultural inclusion of the internet can do for a person’s happiness. That’s why the web is so explosive here. It’s our voice, our identity, our channel of expression. The internet represents us.”

Other organizations joined in: Meu Rio started a “Save the Internet” campaign that mobilized 11,000 Brazilians to email their congressmen in favor of net neutrality. MidiaNINJA, an activist media collective that rose to prominence during the protests that swept across Brazil last year, started tweetcasting the congressional sessions. Dozens of civil society organizations joined together to install a big screen in Congress and display messages from Brazilians in support of the bill. And an Avaaz.org petition by former Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil gathered 300,000 signatures in 48 hours.

After a six-month stalemate, Congress passed the bill in April, and more than 70% of the approved text had been drafted through the collaborative process. “And the additional 30% is pretty good because of all the people who followed the bill’s progress,” Lemos says.

Article 4 of Marco Civil promotes “the right of access to the internet to all” and article 27 asserts that “public initiatives to promote digital culture and promote the internet as a social tool should: I) promote digital inclusion; and II) seek to reduce gaps, especially between different regions of the country, access and use of information technology and communication.”

“It’s a pretty strong bill, especially when you compare it to the crazy laws a lot of other countries are passing,” says Lemos. The same month Marco Civil passed in Brazil, Russia passed a law giving the government broad control over how information is disseminated on the internet. And this February, Turkey passed a law giving the government power to censor websites without a court order, despite protests from more than 100,000 Turkish citizens on Twitter. Brazil has also successfully defeated censorship legislation similar to SOPA/PIPA in the U.S.

When I asked Lemos what he thought made Brazil’s web culture distinctly Brazilian, he pointed to a comment John Perry Barlow made in 2003 when they were working together to bring Creative Commons to Brazil. “He said, 'It's interesting Brazilians like the internet so much, and I know why — it’s because you were a networked society even before the internet,'” says Lemos.

“And I believe that right now Brazil has become a laboratory for experimenting with technology and participation. Marco Civil was a leading case for that. It showed that technology and democracy actually go well together, and one can learn from the other.”

The article has been updated to reflect Google's announcement about Orkut.