April 10, 2006

A Web Site Born in U.S. Finds Fans in Brazil

RIO DE JANEIRO — Ask Internet users here what they think of Orkut  
<>, the two-year-old Google social networking service,  
and you may get a blank stare. But pronounce it "or-KOO-chee," as  
they do in Portuguese, and watch faces light up.

"We were just talking about it!" said Suellen Monteiro, approached by  
a reporter as she gossiped with four girlfriends at a bar in the New  
York City Center mall here. The topic was the guy whom 18-year-old  
Aline Makray had met over the weekend at a Brazilian funk dance, who  
had since found her on Orkut and asked her to join his network.

Orkut, the invention of a Turkish-born software engineer named Orkut  
Buyukkokten, never really caught on in the United States, where  
MySpace rules teenage cyberspace. But it is nothing short of a  
cultural phenomenon in Brazil.

About 11 million of Orkut's more than 15 million users are registered  
as living in Brazil — a remarkable figure given that studies have  
estimated that only about 12 million Brazilians use the Internet from  
home. (And that 11 million does not include people like Ms. Makray,  
who clicked on Hungary as a nod to her heritage, or someone named  
Mauricio who wrote in Portuguese but jokingly registered as being  
from Mauritius.)

Expect Brazilian Portuguese dictionaries to add "orkut" to upcoming  
editions. O Globo, Rio's biggest daily newspaper, refers to it  
without further explanation. And the Brazilian media routinely  
measures the popularity of music groups and actors by the number of  
user communities dedicated to them on Orkut.

"Surto," a popular comedic play showing in Rio de Janeiro, is  
peppered with references to Orkut. And the site's jargon has entered  
the Brazilian lexicon, like "scrap" (pronounced "SKRAH-pee" or  
"SHKRAH-pee"), meaning a note that one user leaves in another's  
virtual scrapbook for everyone — including jealous boyfriends and  
girlfriends and curious suitors — to see.

But the sheer popularity of Orkut, which people can join by  
invitation only, has had several unexpected consequences. Almost as  
soon as Brazilians started taking over Orkut in 2004 — and long  
before April 2005, when Google made Orkut available in Portuguese —  
English-speaking users formed virulently anti-Brazilian communities  
like "Too Many Brazilians on Orkut."

And, more darkly, Orkut's success has made it a popular vehicle for  
child pornographers, pedophiles and racist and anti-Semitic groups,  
according to Brazilian prosecutors and nonprofit groups.  
Hatemongering on Orkut has also been decried in the United States and  
elsewhere, but it is in Brazil where the biggest effort is under way  
to halt the problem and confront Google's seemingly tight-lipped  

SaferNet Brasil, a nongovernmental organization founded late last  
year, tracks human rights violations on Orkut and has generated much  
press coverage of illegal activity on the site. (Many forms of racist  
speech are outlawed in Brazil.)

SaferNet's president, Thiago Nunes de Oliveira, a professor of  
cyberlaw at the Catholic University of Salvador, said the problem had  
exploded in the last few months. "In 45 days of work, we identified  
5,000 people who were using the Internet, and principally Orkut, to  
distribute images of explicit sex with children," he said. And that  
was aside from the racists, neo-Nazis and other hate groups the  
organization found.

In February, after several failed attempts to contact Google's Brazil  
office, Mr. Nunes de Oliveira said, SaferNet Brasil filed a complaint  
with federal prosecutors in São Paulo. Prosecutors summoned Google's  
Brazilian sales staff to a meeting on March 10 and asked them for  
help identifying users breaking Brazilian human rights laws.

Google declined a reporter's requests for a direct interview with Mr.  
Buyukkokten, but a spokeswoman forwarded some of Mr. Buyukkokten's  
responses by e-mail. The Brazilian office, he said, handles ad sales  
and does not even work with Orkut, which produces no revenue. "Orkut  
prohibits illegal activity (such as child pornography) as well as  
hate speech and advocating violence," he wrote. "We will remove such  
content from Orkut when we are notified."

But Mr. Nunes de Oliveira said that removing the content was not what  
they were asking for. "The incapacity of the authorities to  
investigate these crimes is principally the lack of cooperation by  
Google in identifying those users," he said. He also worried that  
Google was not archiving evidence of crimes as it deleted offending  

Thamea Danelon Valiengo, part of a team of federal prosecutors  
working on cybercrime cases in São Paulo, agreed. She said that  
prosecutors had asked judges to order Google to turn over information  
on users who perpetrate crimes. So far, she said, Google has agreed  
to send a lawyer to Brazil for a meeting in May.

Mr. Buyukkokten wrote by e-mail that Google would cooperate with the  
authorities, but did not specify whether, for example, it would  
provide logs allowing users to be traced by their Internet address,  
as prosecutors have asked. A Google spokeswoman, Debbie Frost, said  
by e-mail that in four to six weeks, Orkut would deploy a tool that  
would "better identify and remove content that violates our terms of  

In general, though, Orkut fanatics seem undisturbed by illegal  
activity on the site, which most of those interviewed said they had  
never come across personally. They were more interested in finding  
long-lost classmates and friends, one of the site's most lauded  
abilities. Schools, workplaces, even residential streets have  
"communities" joined by people who have studied, worked or lived there.

And everyone has stories of romance foiled by a telltale posting. Ms.  
Makray once found the page of a man who had flirted with her in a  
club. "He hadn't told me that he had children or that he was  
married," she said. "I discovered it on Orkut."

Erika Laun, 23, checks Orkut every day from work to keep an eye on  
her boyfriend. "When we were first going out," she said, "a girl who  
liked him was always sending messages and making fun of the messages  
that I sent him." The rival's sister, whom he didn't even know,  
helped out, sending messages like "Hey big boy, love you, 1,000 kisses."

"I was really angry," Ms. Laun said.

No one quite knows why Orkut caught on among Brazilians and not  
Americans, although the fact that it is an invitation-only network  
might explain why it exploded in Brazil. In a 2005 interview with the  
newspaper Folha de São Paulo, Mr. Buyukkokten said it might be  
because Brazilians were "a friendly people," and perhaps because some  
of his own friends, among the first to join the network, had  
Brazilian friends.

Fernanda Leon, an architecture student eating at a Middle Eastern  
restaurant here with her boyfriend, said she thought Brazil had  
gravitated toward Orkut because of the country's inherently social  
culture. "Brazilians really want to interact with other people, both  
old friends and new people," she said. She has 379 friends on her  

Mr. Nunes de Oliveira of SaferNet stressed that he was only against  
the illegal uses of Orkut. "It's a fantastic tool, an excellent  
service," he said. "We do not want it gone."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

s. e. anderson (author of "The Black Holocaust for Beginners" -  
Writers + Readers) +