Secret may be banned in Brazil over anonymity, after judge grants preliminary injunction

A Brazilian judge has told Google and Apple to not only remove Secret from their app stores, but also to remotely delete the app from users’ devices, because it allows people to attack the reputations of others anonymously. Anonymity is illegal under the Brazilian constitution.

The judge also ordered Microsoft to take a Secret client called Cryptic out of the Windows Phone store in Brazil. Secret allows people to share rumors and comment on events and people without making their identities clear.

The preliminary injunction – emergency relief ahead of a final ruling — came down late Tuesday in a Vitória civil court, in a case lodged by public prosecutor Marcelo Zenkner. Zenkner said he had been contacted by people complaining about anonymous bullying. Because any removal request must be sent in English to an American judge via the Brazilian foreign ministry, he said, there was no way for victims to effectively defend themselves.

Balancing rights

In his ruling, judge Paulo César de Carvalho pointed out that the Brazilian constitution says “the privacy, private life, honor and image of persons are inviolable, and the right to compensation for property or moral damages resulting from their violation is ensured.” The constitution also backs free expression, but to square that with its privacy elements it forbids anonymity.

[company]Secret[/company]’s promises of anonymity are unconstitutional in Brazil, and getting compensation for privacy violations is “extremely difficult,” the judge said. So he approved the prosecutor’s application for emergency relief, giving [company]Google[/company], [company]Apple[/company] and [company]Microsoft[/company] 10 days to comply.

Not that it will seriously dent their cash piles, but once those 10 days are up the firms would face a daily fine of 20,000 reals ($8,890) for failure to follow the order. They can of course appeal.

According to Estadão, there is still confusion over whether the ban applies to those who bring smartphones with the Secret app into the country.

The moderation problem

This is hardly the first time Secret and apps like it have been criticized for facilitating bullying. Indeed, as my colleague Carmel DeAmicis revealed a couple weeks back, Secret is set to follow rival Whisper in outsourcing much of its moderation to a Philippine firm called TaskUs, in a bid to protect users and improve its reputation.

As this Brazilian case shows, language could end up being a major problem in this drive to create anonymous but ethical systems for expression. If moderating English-language content requires outsourcing to teams of humans, adding eyeballs that can spot violations in other languages, like Brazilian Portuguese, will be that much more expensive.

Most countries don’t ban anonymity, but Brazil is a very proactive country when it comes to digital policy, and its actions may have a ripple effect over time. Globally speaking, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that no-one shall be subjected to attacks upon their honor and reputation” and that “everyone has the right to the protection of the law” against such attacks.

However, the declaration also states that anyone may “receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” It’s really up to each country to figure out how it wants to balance those rights – and for startups like Secret, that’s probably going to mean a messy and complex regulatory landscape.