Amid Explosive Growth Brazil’s Internet Stumbles over Hacking, Piracy and Censorship

Censorship in Brazilian Internet As a rising star on the global stage and as the current financial model that many other Latin American states wish to emulate, Brazil is viewed as the poster child for regional development. With that said, one aspect of Brazil’s extraordinary pace of growth that has not been widely discussed is how widespread Internet usage is in the Portuguese-speaking giant.

The Internet is the passageway to the future and its importance in Brazil’s overall development, whether it be for general communication purposes or business transactions, hence it is important to understand where this global tool stands in Latin America’s largest nation.

A June 2011 article in the Financial Times explains that “[i]n 2001 there were around 47 million Internet users in the BRICS, namely Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa economies, now there are 759 million; the number of users has grown 16 times in 10 years. However, the penetration of Internet usage in the [BRICs] countries still only sits at 31 per cent which is paltry compared to the US at 77 per cent.”

There are a number of different computations that provide varying statistics of how many Internet users Brazil currently has. According to one source, Brazil in 2010 officially had 67 million Internet users though experts argued that the number was probably closer to 73 million.

According to the Brazilian Telecommunications Association (Telebrasil), 22.4 million new users were registered in 2010 in the country.[1] On the other hand, a December 2011 article by the Polish News Bulletin, while reporting that the Polish airline ticket broker has expanded to Brazil, explained that “during the last three years, the share of Brazilians with access to the Internet increased from 27 to 48 percent, with the number of Internet users in the country reaching 78 million.”[2]

The data supplied by Telebrasil also explains that smartphone users in Brazil have surged 130 percent in the past 12 months since the country launched a National Broadband Internet Plan in 2011 to provide affordable broadband service to all Brazilians by 2014.[3]

To put Internet usage in a proper context, as the website explains: “Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, the sixth most populous, and the seventh country in Internet usage.”[4]

Also, the International Monetary Fund recently projected that Brazil will be the fifth largest economy by 2015; while Brasilia proclaimed that this will occur sooner than that.[5] It’s natural to assume that the economic and population growth (Brazil had a population of almost 195 million in 2010 according to World Bank data), means that the number of Internet users will grow rapidly in the coming years.


Regarding e-businesses, there is a website called Peixe Urbano  a Brazilian version of Groupon, in which subscribers receive via e-mail offers for stores and other services. Other e-businesses include Meliuz, which provides offers for a variety of services, and, which sells a wide array of women’s clothing.

Also, Netflix, a popular video rental e-business in the U.S. has entered the Latin American market, including Brazil’s. Daily Variety reveals that the Portuguese-version of Netflix began operating in September 2011 with a monthly fee of $9, and the company has struck content deals with Globo, a major domestic TV station.[6]

Regarding e-shopping in Brazil, it appears to be a growing trend. Ana Santi, who has a popular blog called Born in Brazil[7] explains that “‘shopping is a fundamental part of the Brazilian culture […]In São Paulo, their beach is the shopping malls,” meaning that there is a cultural factor of why e-businesses have yet to take off.[8]

Nevertheless, an International Herald Tribune article on the Internet in Brazil explains that “the good news for e-retailing is that a large portion of those sales are coming from Brazilians younger than 30. Sixty percent of the country’s population is younger than 29. And, of course, younger Brazilians are the most Internet-savvy sector, spending an average of nine hours a day on Web-related activities.”[9] 

In an interview with the author, Natalia Hermont, who works as New Business Director in the aforementioned Meliuz, a growing Brazilian e-business, explained that “everything leads us to believe that e-business will grow. Not only because of the better access to the Internet, but also analyzing some national Internet rankings we are able to see that online shopping is no longer considered a novelty, it has now become a habit.”

In other words, we will most likely see a rise of online purchasing in the coming years, which would reflect a cultural shift as new generations become more accustomed to carrying out transactions in the virtual world.

The Problem of E-Piracy

In mid-December 2011, Apple launched iTunes stores in 15 Latin American states, including Brazil, with the goal that Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn will soon produce iPods, iPads and iPhones in Brazil, and which will, hopefully, put a dent in the piracy practiced in that country. 

“For 15 years there have been immeasurable losses to pirated CDs, and for 10 years to piracy carried out on the Internet,” said Paulo Rosa, president of the Brazilian Association of Record Producers, to a recent AP report.

Indeed, another issue regarding Internet-related businesses booming in Brazil, is not to change the culture so people get used to shopping online, but that they also choose not to download illegal content such as movies and music. The aforementioned AP report interviewed an 18-yeard old law student in Sao Paulo who declared that “Brazilians have been downloading music for free for so many years, it’s part of the culture. Nobody expects to pay for music […] I’ve been getting my music for free off the Internet for a decade, and I’m not going to stop.”[10]

Thus, it would seem that as Brazilian culture changes as it resorts to the Internet for online shopping, a change will also be needed regarding digital piracy. A problem is that the Brazilian legal system has not made it a priority to crack down on illegal piracy.

Article 184 of the Brazilian Penal Code states that any act of copyright infringement is a crime; nevertheless there is what is known as the Princípio da insignificância (principle of insignificance), which essentially states that some crimes are given priority as compared to others in which no major harm is done (i.e. the damage of robbing a bank as compared to downloading the latest hit song).

There is also the problem that Brazil, like many other states, does not have the human resources nor technology to track down users that download illegal content, particularly when compared to major cyber crimes.

Considering that developed states like the U.S. and Europe have only had limited success at stopping illegal downloading, it’s likely that, in the short run, Brazilian users will turn to e-businesses for shopping for items such as clothes, before they stop downloading copyrighted music files.

Social Media

Brazil has the second-highest number of Twitter users, surpassed only by the U.S. Moreover, the country has a growing number of Facebook users as well, but a social media website known as Orkut remains the prevalent popular social networking tool, though Facebook is quickly catching up.

On September 20, 2011, the website released a comprehensive report entitled “The Rise of Social Networking in Latin America,”[11] which discusses what websites and other outlets have the most subscribers and are most popular among Latinos. Regarding social media in Brazil, the report explains that Orkut has up to 35.7 million subscribers, as compared to Facebook’s 24.5 million.

Twitter has also attracted a growing number of Brazilian users, particularly as sports personalities and other celebrities use it to interact with their fans. For example, Brazilian soccer star Ronaldo (born Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima – @ClaroRonaldo) boasts over two and a half million followers. 

Also, in a somewhat entertaining incident, Twitter saw the face-off of two Brazilian celebrities: in late 2010, Brazilian soccer sensation Neymar (@njr92 – who has close to three million followers), tweeted to Brazilian billionaire Eike Batista: “you have to work a lot to reach my level.”

The Brazilian tycoon and president of the EBX Group tweeted back (@eikebatista – with over half a million followers), “my friend, what you win in one month pays for the fuel for one of my 27 private jets.”[12]

Finally, the Internet has allowed for mini-celebrities to gain significant popularity. For example Brazilian comedian Rafinha Bastos has almost 4 million Twitter followers (@RafinhaBastos).

In statements to the International Herald Tribute, Bastos explained that “‘the Internet is my home […] I’m a creature and creation of the Internet, and I’m very proud of that. The Internet made it possible for me to construct my career the way I wanted to.”[13]


In August 2010, the Brazilian army created a cyber-defense wing known as the Centro de Defesa Cibernética do Exército (Army’s Center for Cybernetic Security), with General José Carlos dos Santos as commander. The center currently has between twenty and thirty personnel. In an interview with Revista Época, a Brazilian magazine, General Santos explained that the hiring of hackers to work for the Center “is a possibility.”

The Brazilian military officer went on to say that “we have ways to recruit by showing our work and giving the perspective of a challenging and interesting career.” He also said that beginning 2012, it will be mandatory for young Brazilian military officers to learn about information technology, and this will also be applied in the training of sergeants.

Certainly, the proliferation of cyber crimes will make domestic e-security initiatives like the CDCE even more important in the coming years as Brazil increasingly realizes it is not safe from such online threats.

In June 2011, Brazil had several government websites hacked, “and private sector websites knocked offline and their Army personnel database was hacked with information posted online.” It seems that a Brazilian hacking group, allegedly associated with the international hacker association LulzSec, was responsible.

Nevertheless, it is important to highlight that Brazilian e-businesses are taking the appropriate measures to prevent cyber attacks. As explained to the author, the aforementioned Meliuz New Business Director explained, “we work with Site Blindado and they are always running security tests on our website to prevent any hacking attacks.”

E-Restrictions and Censorship

A final aspect that will continue to grow in importance in the coming years, as Internet usage spreads in Brazil, has to do with e-censorship and freedom of expression.

An April 2010 article in the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ Internet Advocacy Coordinator’s Danny O’Brien reported that “Google says it received over 50 percent more requests from Brazilian authorities for content to be removed than those of the next highest country, Germany. Brazil also beat out second-place United States in personal data requests, despite having only 72 million Internet users in 2008 compared to the 230 million in the States.”

Another report explained that Google stated that the Brazilian government made 263 requests that content be removed from one of the company’s web services in the second half of 2010, more than any other nation. Google complied with 76 per cent of the Brazilian requests, meaning more than 12,300 items online.[14]

The CPJ article adds that “besides more than 200 Orkut removal orders, Brazilian government demands have been met by also taking down more Gmail accounts and more Blogger sites than any other country. Brazil is also in the top 10 for government-mandated takedowns of YouTube and Web search items.”[15]

Brazilian government officials state that these personal data requests had to do with operations to crack down on criminal groups, like those involved in child pornography. Nevertheless, there is concern that this is only part of the picture, meaning that the Brazilian government is using legitimate operations to crack down on criminals as an excuse to limit freedom of expression. The aforementioned CPJ article reports that

“As CPJ reported in Attacks on the Press in 2009, one congressman, Edmar Moreira, filed more than 44 suits against at least 38 journalists. Lower court judges routinely interpret Brazilian law in ways that restrict press freedom. On the Internet, courts have ordered Web sites to remove stories on judicial corruption, business dealings, and other matters of public interest.”[16]

Similar concerns have been raised by the infamous PL 84/99 bill (also known as the Azeredo Law), currently under review by the Brazilian Committee on Science and Technology.  This measure is known for being particularly harsh, since its passage could allow courts to apply criminal penalties to activities like file sharing, peer-to-peer communications, and the fair use of copyrighted works.

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and sites like YouTube and Flickr could become liable for unlawful content posted by their users. In addition, ISPs, email service providers, and other Internet intermediaries would be obligated to collect and retain users’ personal data for extended periods of time. 

A November 2011 article in Global Voices Advocacy explains how Brazilian scholars, civil society leaders, and advocates for digital rights have spoken out against the bill, arguing that the law would interfere with citizens’ rights, including freedom of expression and privacy and the attempts to restrict the openness of the Internet in Brazil.[17]

The Washington DC-based Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) has also come out to critique the bill.[18] In an interview with the author, Ellery Biddle, an associate at the CDT, explained that

“there is a fair amount of opposition to the Azeredo bill in civil society, and also in the public sector and in Congress. But the bill also has many supporters, who argue that its passage is imperative to fighting the distribution of malicious code and child pornography, and curbing fraud and the theft of financial information online. These are very legitimate aims, but Brazil already has strong laws in its criminal code that address fraud, theft, and child pornography, which are as applicable online as they are offline.”

Another organization, the Rio-based Sexuality Policy Watch (SPW) recently published a chapter entitled “Internet regulation and sexual politics in Brazil” in a major report called EroTICs: Sexuality and the Internet – an exploratory research, which was funded by the Ford Foundation.[19]

In the chapter on Brazil, the SPW researchers discussed Internet regulation and “also scanned perceptions about Internet regulation among feminist and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights activists.”[20] Like other centers that promote freedom of speech and opinion, the SPW chapter was highly critical of the PL 84/99 law.

It is noteworthy to highlight that besides the Azeredo law another bill, which could be reviewed before it by the Brazilian government is the Marco Civil da Internet (Civil Rights Framework for the Internet). The website of the Centro de Tecnologia e Sociedade (CTS) at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in Rio (FGV) states that the Marco Civil is “an initiative from the Brazilian Ministry of Justice, in partnership with the [CTS/FGV], to develop a collaborative process in which all the actors from Brazilian society could identify together the rights and responsibilities that should guide the use of the Internet in Brazil.”[21]

Biddle explains that it is a “strong piece of civil legislation that would serve as an Internet user’s bill of rights. Establishing clear rights and protections for Internet users, the law (which would be among the first of its kind internationally) would set a powerful example for other countries in the region and around the world.”

The Virtual World and Real Violence

In mid-December 2011, a popular Brazilian blogger known as “el Mosquito” (real name Alexander Hamilton) was found dead in his apartment. Authorities have ruled his death a “suicide by hanging,” though family and supporters want an in-depth investigation as he had received several threats to his safety. An article in Global Voices explains that

“Mosquito became famous – as well as a victim of political harassment – in his state, after reporting a rape case in Florianópolis, capital of Santa Catarina, which involved the son of a director (Sergio Sirotsky) of RBS, a leading media company linked to RedeGlobo in the region, and a 13 year-old girl, in June 2010. The media, in general, sought to hush up the case.”[22]

The truth behind Mosquito’s death is not yet clear, however it is important not to blow his death out of proportion and begin comparing the physical safety of Brazilian bloggers with what’s going on, for example, in Mexico. 

Regarding the internal war in Mexico, the violence has taken over the virtual world as the Zetas, one of the country’s most notorious drug cartels, have murdered a number of bloggers, like “el Rascatripas,” for posting information about operations carried out by this criminal group.

Certainly there are several violent organizations in Brazil, like the PCC. Nevertheless comparing Internet-related violence in Brazil and Mexico at this stage is a stretch; though Mosquito’s death deserves a full investigation as well as the threats that other Brazilian bloggers have received in order to avoid violence from spreading into the virtual world.

At the Forefront of the E-Future

In November 2011, during a meeting of communication ministers, Brazil’s Paulo Bernardo declared his government’s intention to create “a ring of South American fiber optic networks encompassing the entire continent.”[23]

This “South American solution,” he added, would lower the costs of Internet and mobile access across the region, benefiting consumers and ISPs alike.[24]

Such statements and calls to action are fairly ambitious, and they go hand in hand with other bold initiatives, like the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the latest attempt at regional integration without the U.S. as a member.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that ranging from e-crimes to e-censorship, there are issues that the Brazilian government, like any other nation, will have to successfully deal with at home in order for consistency in their international stand on related issues.


Alex Sanchez is a research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – The organization is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. Email:



[2] “ Set to Conquer Brazil.” Polish News Bulletin.Business.December 21, 2011.




[6] De La Fuente, Anne Marie. Netflix streams into Latin America. Daily Variety.International.P. 12. September 5, 2011.


[8] Michault, Jessica. “Brazil is online – but it isn’t used to shopping there yet;
Special Report.”International Herald Tribune.Leisure. November 9, 2011.P. 204.

[9] Michault, Jessica. “Brazil is online – but it isn’t used to shopping there yet;
Special Report.”International Herald Tribune.Leisure.November 9, 2011. P. 204.




[13] Rohter, Larry. “Adept with new media, Brazilian comedians flourish worldwide;
RafinhaBastos is part of a new generation of country’s humorists.” International Herald Tribune.Leisure.P. 11. August 9, 2011.

[14] “Brazil leads way in Google content removal requests.” The New Zealand Herald.Tribune. June 30, 2011.












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