Should internet campaign ads be against the law?

SAO PAULO, Brazil — Brazilian politicians thinking about re-election have been devouring books about Barack Obama and others who capitalized on the internet during last year's U.S. presidential campaign. Many have begun Twittering and blogging as they try to connect to an ever-more-web-savvy country.

But even if proposed reforms go into effect, they won't be able to take full advantage of the Obama model, since among other things campaign advertising will still be forbidden outside the presidential race. (They will be able to Twitter away, though.)

Brazilian campaign laws — which are much stricter than American ones — include several restrictions on political speech that can seem arcane to outsiders, and even to some Brazilians. A bill recently sent to the president for approval would loosen many of the constraints — though leave in a place a few perplexing caveats.

Brazil's campaign period lasts only three months, during which paid television and radio advertising is prohibited and free time is doled out according to each party’s strength in the legislature. Print ads are highly restricted, in theory to give equal voice to smaller parties with fewer economic resources. Television and radio journalists are required to follow strict fair coverage rules.

Internet advertising is essentially prohibited, and candidates may only promote themselves in a special .can.br domain. A prehistoric paragraph from 1997 legislation essentially governs the internet, equating it to radio and television, and case-by-case decisions taken by electoral courts leading up to the 2006 election sometimes installed ad hoc policies that often varied by state. The Brazilian Senate reached a compromise Tuesday that would eliminate many of the restrictions on internet use for the presidential race that commences in July. The Chamber of Deputies voted Wednesday to approve the Senate's changes on the internet portions of the bill. The president must sign the bill by Oct. 2.

The internet changes are the most closely watched components of a wider electoral reform, and just about everyone was trying to come across as pushing for greater web freedom.

“It would be impossible to control the internet,” President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Monday in a radio interview.

“People are saying we are trying to regulate the internet, but that would be completely impossible,” said Deputy Flavio Dino, who was responsible for the version of the law that came from the Chamber of Deputies, in an interview with GlobalPost.

“We consider the ideal to be that there would be no restrictions on the internet during the electoral campaign,” said Ricardo Pedreira, executive director of the National Association of Newspapers.

But the rhetoric masked the details. Though most agreed campaign donations via credit card over the internet should finally be allowed (potentially transforming the role of small campaign donors, who have been virtually non-existent in past campaigns), other questions were hotly debated by all the freedom-promoters. Should media companies have to follow the same fair coverage rules online as they do on the radio or television? Should bloggers be allowed anonymity? Should paid advertising be allowed?

In the end, paid advertising on the internet was only freed up for presidential candidates, which left some legislators perplexed. “It doesn’t make any sense to allow advertising in a newspaper and not on the internet,” said Deputy Julio Semeghini, who worked for two decades in the computer industry. “It’s the cheapest form of advertising. And there are some deputies for whom newspaper advertising does no good, whose audience doesn’t read the newspaper.”

When Deputy Dino’s version got to the House, senators added language exempting individual bloggers and those posting through social networking tools completely from virtually all regulation, although it still forbids anyone from posting anonymously — something that will seemingly be hard to control. A final debate hinged around whether sites run by media companies and internet portals should be required to follow fairness rules that restrict television and radio, forbidding giving candidates “privileged or partisan treatment without journalistic motive to justify it.”

“I don’t know how we can try to control the uncontrollable,” Senator Aloizio Mercadante, who successfully eliminated that restriction in the final compromise, said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “Brazil has to advance, to have the courage to live with greater freedom of thought.”

Yet the final text still maintained the prohibition of anonymity, and, more controversially, required online candidate debates to follow the same rules as television and radio debates. (The latter caused Mercadante to vote against the very compromise he had engineered.)

The version that the Chamber of Deputies approved Wednesday left all the internet changes in place, although it removed Senate amendments in other areas. It now goes to the president, who will likely sign it. Not passing it at all would have caused internet campaigning to revert to the 1997 law and the 2006 precedents. “The last elections in Brazil were ridiculous,” said Deputy Semeghini. “Every regional court was saying what you could do or could not do. It was total confusion.”