More on Orkut and law enforcement: Brazil

A number of readers wrote in to sound off on today's post about reported cooperation between Orkut/Google and the Mumbai police. Among the responses were many that focused on similar action in Brazil.

Bernardo says,

Google has designed a special Orkut admin tool for deleting or blocking illegal content, and given Brazilian police access to this tool. This means that if you're on Orkut and you say something that in Brazil could be considered illegal (such as celebrity gossip, Consumerist-style corporate bashing, mistreating animals), the Brazilian police can censor the community where this "illegal" speech is seen.

How exactly does this censorship work? Well, in your Orkut profile, you can specify which country you are from. Orkut admins (and the Brazilian police) can tag content as "block from [country]", so that anyone with "Brazil" as their home country will no longer see this content. This, of course, has led many users to put random small islands as their home countries, as a form of protest. Orkut admins at Google can, of course, delete content outright, and do get rid of content about pedophilia and drug dealing and other clearly-illegal activity (and other content that violates the terms of use, such as discussions about how to hack Orkut) , but it is unclear whether Brazilian police has that power, and Google is always hesitant to delete anything at all, as you know (the infamous Gmail "stuff may get "deleted" but we might still have it in our computers" terms of service apply here as well).

It used to be that the Brazilian police still had to ask Google each time they want an IP address, and in order to get the IP address they had to show evidence (in Orkut) of the user talking about committing a crime, such as selling drugs, or show that the request was a part of a police/government investigation or other legal/judicial process. However, it seems that now the police has access to IP addresses as well, through this new admin tool (although they might require permission from the courts before they can use the tool to request personally identifying information such as an IP address).

And yes, before this admin tool was available, the Brazilian police did realize that it was much more effective to catch drug dealers on Orkut by going undercover and setting up fake deals (like "To Catch A Predator" in the US, but not televised) rather than by trying to convince Google to turn over a user's IP address.

As you may know, Google Brazil got into rather serious legal trouble when courts asked it to turn over the IP addresses of Orkut users, and Google Brazil said that they had no access to any Orkut information, they just run advertising, this is something that needs to be taken up with Google Inc in Mountain View.

In Brazil, the courts apparently can fine a local subsidiary of a multinational when a foreign branch of that subsidiary does something that is not illegal where it was done but can be seen via the internet in Brazil where it is a crime. Imagine if the Chinese courts could fine Google China every time you wrote a Blogger entry about a topic the Chinese government disapproves of! Here are some links about all the Brazilian police's admin tool: one, two ... and about Brazilian courts demanding that Google Brazil turn over information stored in servers in the US: one, two, three. And here's the official word on all this from Orkut: Link.

In Brazil, Orkut feels like it's as big as Facebook and MySpace put together - it's what I use to keep in touch with my high-school class, and my uncles and aunts. Everyone I know has an account, and any public figure (like musicians and politicians) set up official accounts so as to better manage their relationship with the internet generation. It's hard to overstate how huge Orkut is in Brazil. (And if you want some absolute numbers: Facebook has 17 million users. Orkut has 44 million, 57% of whom are Brazilian. MySpace has over 100 million).

Full disclosure: I used to work at Google, and spent about 90% of my time working on Orkut, doing translation and user support and helping to deal with the occasional legal complication. I have recently quit to pursue another career.

I hope this helps to shed some light into Google's social-networking empire in Brazil and its complicated relationship with the Brazilian justice and law enforcement systems.

Please keep up your fantastic work. I'm a big fan.


Solon says,
["Cooperation" between Orkut and law enforcement] is something that's been going on for a while here in Brazil, where law enforcement agencies just love suing Google for "objectionable content" over on Orkut (we have several laws against hate speech and against defending anything that's considered a crime - such as legalizing gambling, drugs or abortion).

late last year, news started showing up about how Google had developed a special tool for law enforcement officials throughout the world to flag offensive content on Orkut and get priority in their reviewing processes. they can even request Google to keep users data for further inspection, pending a court order. it's all in Orkut's help file (scroll down, till you find "Better communication with law enforcement"): Link.

apparently, they're not handing out any user's private data unless legally required to do so. which, again, made news here in Brazil, with lawyers saying they were not delivering what the courts ordered: Link.

on the one hand, I kinda feel sorry for Google, having to deal with countries with all these ridiculous speech-restricting legislation. on the other hand, their willingness in complying with the most absurd demands from governments in order to be able to make business with them is just plain wrong.


Previously on BoingBoing:

  • India: Google's Orkut helps cops censor? New cyberterror law...
  • Brazilian cops: Orkut used as drug network
  • Brazilians outnumber Yanquis on Orkut 2-1
  • Brazil orders YouTube shut down over celebrity sex video
  • Brazil's congress wants to track Internet users