On April 28, Felipe Neto, a Brazilian YouTuber with more than 45 million followers, was angry. He had just received a message from YouTube warning him about PL2630, a bill in Brazil’s National Congress dubbed the “Fake News Law” that would regulate online platforms. Influencers like Neto, the company said, could be forced to take down content to avoid lawsuits, and the government might be able to control parts of YouTube’s platform.

To Neto, that warning was itself fake news. He felt that the message, and a similar post on YouTube’s blog, mischaracterized the proposed legislation. “The attempt to manipulate creators against the bill was clear,” Neto says. In response, he Tweeted the message from YouTube along with his own replies to its statements, warning other content producers to “read carefully, because I have never seen such a heavy attempt to use creators to defend Google’s interests.”

Neto was responding to just one part of a multipronged effort in Brazil by Google and several other major US technology companies to beat back a bill that sought to impose a new regulatory structure on them. It would require platforms and search engines to find and remove hate speech, misinformation, and other illegal content or be subject to fines. 

In the weeks leading up to a congressional vote scheduled early this month, Brazilians noticed a bombardment of ads and company statements pushing back on the proposed law. Ads on Instagram, Facebook, and in national newspapers linked to a Google blog post calling for an extended debate on the bill. The post said that some parts of the bill had not been debated in Congress, and that the timing of the vote had limited “the space for discussion and possibilities for improving the text in Congress.” 

Last week, just 24 hours before Brazil’s National Congress was set to vote on the bill, users in the country opening up the Google homepage were greeted with a link below the Search box that read, “The fake news bill could increase confusion about what is true or false in Brazil.” Google removed the link after the country’s Ministry of Justice said it would fine the company up to $200,000 per hour for what the agency called a “propaganda campaign” violating the consumer protection laws.

“You have to make it transparent that someone paid for [a message], that it’s a company’s position, and that’s why it’s there,” says Estela Aranha, digital rights secretary for the Brazilian Ministry of Justice. Rafael Corrêa, director of communications and public affairs at Google Brazil describes the company’s push against the bill as a “marketing campaign to give broader visibility to our concerns” and likened it to previous campaigns on matters of public interest such as to promote voting or Covid-19 vaccinations. He says the notice sent to Neto and others was an attempt to explain “legitimate” risks of the bill.

The vote on the bill was stalled last week due to an influx of last-minute amendments, but the way US tech platforms, particularly Google, sought to shape public debate over the law has sparked increased concern among experts and government officials in Brazil. The industry’s attempts to fend off new regulation may now lead to it receiving even more scrutiny.

The need for social media regulation has, to some in Brazil, felt greater since January 8th, when thousands of people stormed the National Congress in support of defeated right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro. Like the assault on the US Congress in 2021, the Brazilian uprising was fomented on platforms like Telegram, and activist groups found that advertisements questioning the integrity of the elections repeatedly slipped through Meta’s systems. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as “Lula,” has been open about the need to regulate platforms more aggressively.

“The platforms were unprepared, but most importantly, unwilling to take tough measures against hate speech and disinformation around elections,” says Flora Arduini, campaign director at the advocacy group Ekō. “For the Lula government, January 8 was really the moment where they felt, ‘We need to take this debate forward to effectively regulate the platforms.’”

US tech companies have found allies in their fight against regulation from Brazil’s far right, both online and in Congress. Though there is no evidence that Google, Meta, or any other tech company has been in direct contact with right-wing legislators, Arduini says it seems “that the far right is working in coordination with the big tech platforms. You can see the plenary votes, the far right kept repeatedly defending Google.”

“One congressman said the text would forbid the reading of Bible verses on social media; another one said the bill proposed the creation of a Ministry of Truth, which would censor people,” says Orlando Silva, a member of Congress from the Brazilian Communist Party representing the municipality of Salvador in the state of Bahia. On YouTube, far-right influencers used similar language, warning of government censorship. 

Brazil is a market worth fighting over for tech companies like Google, TikTok, and Meta, which draw most of their revenue from advertising. Google accounts for almost 97 percent of search traffic in Brazil; 70 percent of the country, or over 152 million people, use social media; and the country’s digital advertising market was worth some $26 billion annually, as of 2022.

“It is by far the fastest-growing social media market outside of Africa,” says Matthew Soeth, head of trust and safety at Spectrum Labs, a content moderation startup that works with online platforms, and who formerly worked on moderation at TikTok. And because of its regional power, the country may be the blueprint for regulation around the region. Whatever way Brazil goes, Soeth says, “I have a fairly strong feeling the rest of Latin America is going to follow.”

Silva, the communist member of Brazil’s National Congress, says the effort by tech companies to influence public debate on regulation has been an attempt to bring the Congress to its knees. “I visited their headquarters alongside international leaders. It seemed reasonable that Google, being a major economic actor, participates in the public debate,” he says. “What cannot happen is to disguise its intervention, giving the appearance of neutrality of its mechanisms and services, while using them in abusive ways to influence the public opinion in the country”.

Though Silva named Meta and Alphabet as the most egregious offenders, Brazilians have noted other platforms seemingly pushing back on conversation around PL2630. On Twitter, the Brazilian entertainment and gossip account Choquei noted that the audio on a TikTok video discussing the bill had been removed for violating the platform’s community guidelines. Fernando Gallo, public policy director at TikTok Brazil, says that the company favors regulation and public debate about it. The audio was removed in error and reinstated, he says, and it is not TikTok policy to remove content discussing PL2630.

In a report released at the end of April, Marie Santini, founder and director of NetLab at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, tracked companies’ campaigns against the proposed law. She found that Google had purchased ads on both Spotify and Meta’s platforms. “It seems that they are working together. But we can’t prove that, right?” says Santini. “We only see that they are complicit. But we don’t know.”

Spotify’s terms of service prohibit political advertising, but the company declined to explain on the record why the PL2630 ads appeared. A spokesperson for Meta referred WIRED to an April 29 blog post outlining the company’s position on the bill, but the company did not respond to questions about whether it had met with legislators about the bill.

The tech industry’s pushback on PL2630 may prove to have won only a pyrrhic victory: Though a new vote date has yet to be scheduled, Brazil’s Supreme Court has said it will require Google, Meta, and Spotify executives to testify about their company’s efforts to kill the bill.

The public fight over PL2630 isn’t over. Today, encrypted messaging provider Telegram blasted a warning to Brazilian users claiming the proposed law “end free speech” and give the government “censorship powers.” The message included a link to encourage users to contact their legislators. Telegram has been the subject of ongoing scrutiny in Brazil after a judge ordered the platform temporarily suspended after the company said it could not turn over data authorities sought on neo-Nazi groups. Telegram did not immediately respond to request for comment.”

Arduini of the advocacy group Ekō says tech companies need to understand that Brazil has the right to set boundaries for the industry. “This kind of regulation already happens around the world, specifically Europe—the text is pretty much in accordance with the Digital Services Act,” she says, referring to a sweeping new EU regulation on tech platforms. “There are great precedents of regulation happening around the world, and it shouldn’t be different in Brazil.”

Priscila Bellini provided additional reporting and translation.

Updated 5-10-2023, 3:50 pm EDT: The audio was temporarily removed from a TikTok video discussing the proposed law, but the video itself remained available.