Facebook fights order to globally block accounts linked to Brazilian election meddling

Facebook has branded a legal order to globally block a number of Brazilian accounts linked to the spread of political disinformation targeting the country's 2018 election as "extreme," claiming it poses a threat to freedom of expression outside the country.

The tech giant is simultaneously complying with the block order -- beginning Saturday after it was fined by a Supreme Court judge for non-compliance -- citing the risk of criminal liability for a local employee were it not to do so.

However it is appealing to the Supreme Court to try to overturn the order.

A spokesperson for the tech giant sent us this statement on the matter:

Facebook complied with the order of blocking these accounts in Brazil by restricting the ability for the target Pages and Profiles to be seen from IP locations in Brazil. People from IP locations in Brazil were not capable of seeing these Pages and Profiles even if the targets had changed their IP location. This new legal order is extreme, posing a threat to freedom of expression outside of Brazil’s jurisdiction and conflicting with laws and jurisdictions worldwide. Given the threat of criminal liability to a local employee, at this point we see no other alternative than complying with the decision by blocking the accounts globally, while we appeal to the Supreme Court.

On Friday a judge ordered Facebook to pay a 1.92 million reais (~$367,000) fine for non compliance, per Reuters, which says the company had been facing further daily fines of 100,000 reais (~$19,000) had it not applied a global block.

Before the fine was announced Facebook had said it would appeal the global block order, adding that while it respects the laws of countries where it operates "Brazilian law recognizes the limits of its jurisdiction."

Reuters reports that the accounts in question were controlled by supporters of the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, and had been implicated in the spread of political disinformation during the country's 2018 election with the aim of boosting support for the right wing populist.

Last month the news agency reported Facebook had suspended a network of social media accounts used to spread divisive political messages online, which the company had linked to employees of Bolsonaro and two of his sons.

In a blog post at the time, Facebook's head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, wrote: "Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Social Liberal Party and some of the employees of the offices of Anderson Moraes, Alana Passos, Eduardo Bolsonaro, Flavio Bolsonaro and Jair Bolsonaro."

In all, Facebook said it removed 33 Facebook accounts, 14 Pages, 1 Group and 37 Instagram accounts that it identified as involved in the "coordinated inauthentic behavior."

It also disclosed that around 883,000 accounts followed one or more of the offending Pages, the Group had around 350 accounts signed up, and 918,000 people followed one or more of the Instagram accounts.

The political disops effort had spent around $1,500 on Facebook ads, paid for in Brazilian reais, per its account of the investigation.

Facebook said it had identified a network of "clusters" of "connected activity," with those involved using duplicate and fake accounts to "evade enforcement, create fictitious personas posing as reporters, post content and manage Pages masquerading as news outlets."

An example of removed content that was being spread by the disops network identified by Facebook (Image credit: Facebook)

The network posted about "local news and events, including domestic politics and elections, political memes, criticism of the political opposition, media organizations and journalists," and, more recently, about the coronavirus pandemic, it added.

In May a judge in Brazil had ordered Facebook to a block a number of accounts belonging to Bolsonaro supporters who had been implicated in the election meddling. But Facebook only applied the block in Brazil -- hence the court order for a global block.

While the tech giant was willing to remove access to the inauthentic content locally, after it had identified a laundry list of policy contraventions, it's taking a "speech" stance over purging the fake content and associated accounts internationally -- arguing such an order risks overreach that could damage freedom of expression online.

The unstated implication is authoritarian states or less progressive regimes could seek to use similar orders to force platforms to apply national laws which prohibit content that's legal and freely available elsewhere to force it to be taken down in another jurisdiction.

That said, it's not entirely clear in this specific case why Facebook would not simply bring down its own banhammer on accounts that it has found to have so flagrantly violated its own policies on coordinated authentic behavior. But the company has at times treated political "speech" as somehow exempt from its usual content standards -- leading to operating policies that tie themselves in contradictory knots.

Its blog post further notes that some of the content posted by the Brazilian election interference operation had previously been taken down for violating its Community Standards, including hate speech.

Update: In follow-up comments after we queried the decision not to remove the content, Facebook told us that the particular accounts subject to the judicial order did not post content that it deemed had violated its community standards -- but had rather posted content deemed to be defamatory in Brazil.

In such cases it says it applies local geoblocking as policy, subject to human rights due diligence and legal review.

The company also said that the decision by Brazil's Supreme Court is unlike any other it's had applied to its business elsewhere, adding that it does not believe it's reasonable a court order in Brazil apply elsewhere or vice versa.

The case doesn't just affect Facebook. In May, Twitter was also ordered to block a number of accounts linked to the probe into political disops. It's not clear what action Twitter is taking.

We've reached out to the company for comment.

Update II: Discussing the case with TechCrunch, Mireille Hildebrandt, a professor at the research group for Law, Science, Technology and Society at Vrije Universiteit Brussels in Belgium, told us: "The judgement is hugely important because Facebook is required to block accounts globally, based on their violating Brazilian laws against hate speech. Usually courts will shrink back from ordering global blocking as this may infringe upon the sovereignty of other states that may have other laws that should not be overruled by enforcement of Brazilian law.

"The point here was that it would be too easy for the perpetrators to bypass the order by means of accounts outside of Brazil. The Court of Justice of the EU recently decided that the right to be forgotten (GDPR) does not necessarily require delisting of relevant content at the global level, precisely because this would imply extraterritorial jurisdiction."

Hildebrandt went on to emphasize the importance of such rulings being "situated in their context".

"Hate speech in a political context is often automated by way of bots and may have major impact on public interests such as democratic debate, reliability of information in the public sphere etc., whereas delisting of information about an individual person has entirely different consequences," she added.

She also noted that the judge who issued the order, Alexandre de Moraes -- who has been investigating whether Bolsonaro's allies have been running a social network aimed at spreading threats and fake content targeted at Supreme Court justices -- has taken some controversial decisions before.

As Time reported earlier this month, Moraes' probe is also "one of the main points of confrontation between Bolsonaro and the Supreme Court", with the president filed a lawsuit last month demanding that the Facebook accounts be unblocked.