Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s speech at the UN General Assembly today addressed espionage and Internet governance. It follows her announcement last week that she would postpone her state visit to the United States, originally scheduled for October 23. The decision came after revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) has not only been collecting data on Brazilian citizens, but also spying on Dilma and her advisors as well as Petrobras, Brazil’s majority-government-owned oil company. But what was initially seen as a snub could well lead to stronger relations in the long run.
Both the White House and Planalto (Brazil’s presidential palace) noted that the decision to postpone the state visit — Brazil’s first to the United States since 1995 — was mutually agreed upon by Presidents Rousseff and Obama on September 16. While Planalto noted that it was unsatisfied with the U.S. response to Brazilian protestations against U.S. espionage, the White House focused on the positive aspects of the broader bilateral relationship. Press Secretary Jay Carney also indicated that President Obama "has directed a broad review of U.S. intelligence posture, but the process will take several months to complete."
It is unlikely that Rousseff and her advisors didn’t already assume they were being spied on by the intelligence agencies of other countries, including the United States. Indeed, in the wake of the revelations, O Globo reported that Rousseff forbids cell phones in her office, partly to avoid interruptions, but also because they can be remotely activated as recording devices.
That Petrobras was being targeted may have come as a surprise, and some speculate that trade secrets are being stolen despite assurances by U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that this is not the case. On September 17, the head of Brazil’s National Petroleum Agency, Magda Chambriard, assured outraged Brazilians that it would not be possible for the NSA to access Petrobras’ oil exploration and production database because it is stored on servers not connected to the Internet.
Rousseff’s decision to postpone the state visit is likely for two main reasons. First, it will play well domestically, providing some breathing room for a political class that is still under heavy pressure to rein in corruption, improve public services, and reform democratic institutions. Presidential elections are a year away, and Rousseff’s popularity has only recovered slightly from the battering it took during massive street demonstrations in June. Second, this is an assertion of Brazil’s power on the international stage. Brazil has long sought a permanent seat on the UN Security Council as well as greater influence in multilateral organizations such as the World Bank and IMF. Rousseff may be seeking to send a message that Brazil will not be pushed around, that it demands respect commensurate with its economic strength, and that it is no one’s backyard.
By itself, Planalto’s decision is only a statement, albeit a powerful one. Though this will harm Brazil-U.S. relations, the damage may only be temporary if Brazil and the United States continue to functionally cooperate to the same degree they have been. The relatively conciliatory statements coming from both administrations regarding the postponement are encouraging. Ultimately, both countries have a broad range of overlapping interests and it remains important for both to find pragmatic ways to deepen cooperation on economic, security, and governance issues.
The United States and Brazil may even find common cause on Internet governance once the dust settles. The Rousseff administration has been using this episode to draw attention to the broader question of how to manage the Internet, reiterating previous calls for a global body to govern it. Though Rousseff’s speech addressed U.S. spying, she also discussed the need to protect the Internet as a neutral medium. By the same token, the United States has long sought to ensure that the Internet remains unfettered as a means of commerce and free expression. Indeed, this debate is playing out in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where oral arguments recently resumed in Verizon v. F.C.C., a case addressing whether Internet providers can provide faster transmission for content providers who pay a premium or if all data should be treated equally (i.e., neutrally). Though the United States and Brazil differ on specifics, the mutually held principle of net neutrality provides a clear basis for cooperation. On this issue, there is ample room to work together to ensure Internet freedom while still allowing for regulation on legitimate concerns (such as preventing terrorism or cybercrime).
Whether the Internet needs a new governance institution or simply a clear code of conduct within the existing institutional framework is a matter of debate. If this is seized upon as an opportunity to galvanize support for stronger, more comprehensive Internet governance standards, with protections for individual rights and privacy as well as the free flow of data, it might even bring Brazil and the United States closer together in the long run.