(Translated into English and reposted from Valor.com.br with permission of the author)
Regardless of the ideological dispute, there is an issue that the country will necessarily have to solve if it wants to have social peace and sustainable development in the future. It is the inequality that divides Brazil, manifested in various forms, such as inequality in income distribution, racial inequality, gender inequality and social and regional inequalities. The recognition of the importance of this theme divides the country. As we look into the future, a new question arises: what is the impact of digital technologies on the deep-rooted Brazilian inequalities?
In the last decade in developing countries, there was a phenomenon called "digital divide", which separated society between those who could access computers and the internet and the others, who did not have these conditions. As a consequence of this division, poorer families were excluded from the possibilities, opportunities and information available in the digital world. However, the popularization of mobile phones and mobile devices as the primary source of internet access has significantly increased digital inclusion.
According to estimates by the research institute Pew Research, 70% of Brazilians use the internet. Considering that many families share the use of smartphones, the number of Brazilians that access the Internet via cell phones is estimated at 120 million. As digital devices proliferate, the division is no longer just about internet access. It includes new features of the online world that can create new forms of exclusion.
Just over twenty years ago, virtually all the decisions that shaped people's lives were taken by the people themselves or by other humans, such as the recruiting process for a job vacancy, the granting of a loan, the price of airline tickets, the choice of news to be read or which way to take to reach a particular destination. Today, much of the day-to-day decisions are guided, or fully executed, by artificial intelligence algorithms, as Uber, Facebook, Google Twitter and other socio-technical platforms show us.
Although connectivity has increased at all levels of society, the most vulnerable groups in society, such as the unemployed, the underemployed and the digital illiterate, are more exposed to incipient problems, such as violation of personal data, fake news and denial of opportunities. Themes that the majority of the population is unaware of and is not prepared to deal with. A recent study published by Science magazine shows that older Americans, especially those over 65, were the most likely to share fake news with their Facebook friends.
In Brazil, online fraud cases have increased significantly with false offers of jobs, loans and products targeting seniors, women and the unemployed and which are often based on illegal personal data leaks. Digital inequality is a political issue. Public policies should develop coherent roadmaps to deal with the complexity of digital issues for society, since they affect the reality of virtually the entire population. Until then, public policies aimed at stimulating the construction of communication infrastructures with internet access. From now on, public policies must have new priority targets, such as capacity building and regulation.
Brazil presents a paradox. On the one hand, the country is characterized by a deep social gap separating people from totally different worlds in terms of income, values, regions, customs and aspirations. On the other hand, Brazil is one of the countries whose percentage of participation in social networks like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and YouTube is one of the largest in the world. In short: we are a country deeply divided by various types of divisions, but we are surprisingly integrated - or integrable - digitally. This problematic starting point holds extraordinary challenges and opportunities for formulating public policies. Technology can integrate, it can be inclusive and it can approximate people. It can also do the opposite. The way forward will depend heavily on the participation of society in the formulation of regulatory policies for the country.
The root of digital inequality today is intangible. It is the knowledge and capacity for understanding, discernment and judgment of the digital world. Empowered by the technological revolution, the vision of a digital society is capable of transcending conjunctural circumstances and giving the country a long-term, more inclusive and less unfair horizon. It is not just a matter of greater equity - an argument that does not necessarily make everyone aware at all. Equity also means a larger and more robust internal market, a more enterprising and competitive workforce.
Digital technologies offer powerful tools that can change politics, economics, social inequality, culture, arts, customs and family relationships. If we are able to understand ourselves on how to take advantage of this window of opportunity and drag the largest possible number of Brazilians to this crossing, the future will become easier. Democracy - this imperfect and inefficient form of government for which no substitute has yet been found - can be improved by channeling digital technologies to the pursuit of public interest. This is what companies, non-governmental organizations, progressive governments and politicians are doing worldwide.
Francisco Gaetani is a professor at FGV-Rio and former secretary at the Ministries of Environment and Planning.
Virgilio Almeida is a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University and former secretary of Information Policy at the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.