Ronaldo Lemos is an internationally renowned Brazilian academic, lawyer and commentator on intellectual property, technology, and culture. He is an Ashoka Fellow and social entrepreneur, and was recently named a member of Facebook’s new Oversight Board.
Ronaldo, you created the framework for the internet in Brazil, the Marco Civil da Internet, that has been praised as a model framework for how governments can advance rights and keep the web open. What was crucial for this?
What I’m really proud of is not just the substance of the law, but the process – how it came about. It took seven years for Marco Civil to be built, and it was a truly collaborative process driven by civil society. The initiative was not proposed by the government or Congress. It was a proposal that came from the Brazilian society. This idea grew up and developed and turned into a large consultation process that took place online, and all interested sectors and people could participate. That led to a very legitimate, strong, reasonable, balanced law. So the beauty of the Marco Civil is that it is a legal framework that balanced a lot of different interests, very carefully.
How does this legal framework that was passed in 2014 keep up with today’s challenges?
Well, naturally, we are facing a lot of challenges that the law could not touch upon at the time because they were not relevant, but now they are – like the whole fake news debate. But through the collaborative process that led to its emergence, the Marco Civil created a coalition of people, sectors, researchers, private sector agencies that is still active. For instance, we are currently debating a law in Brazil about disinformation, and the citizen sector is very much participating – we have created a structure that can evolve.
Talking about Fake News: you’re one of 20 initial members joining the new Facebook Oversight Board that is supposed to make final decisions about content on the platform, specifically about handling appeals for blocked or removed content. Why did you join?
Most of our institutions were designed in response to problems of the past – problems that are now outdated, or changing quickly. The Oversight Board was created by Facebook as an independent institution, as an attempt to precisely deal with these new sets of problems. In my view, that is an interesting experiment of institutional design. It’s an experiment I am invested in to make work well – so that it legitimizes itself by playing an important role. Right now, we are in the process of building the Oversight Board. And if all goes well, in this second half of the year, we might become operational.
Critics say the Oversight Board’s role is limited, because it won’t change the underlying algorithms that decide who gets to see what, and that prioritize engagement over accuracy. You say?
Here is my opinion: The Oversight Board has been created with a very specific mandate, which is already a huge achievement. We have no obligation to consider Facebook’s profits in decision-making. If us board members do a good job on content moderation decisions, we can basically become an institution that debates and responds to these types of problems in a way that is balanced, and grounded in human rights treaties. I don’t see why in the future we cannot debate algorithms — even if we don’t have that power now. In my view, moral and ethical considerations related to algorithms is something that will naturally come into the perspective of the Board. A disclaimer: All of this is my personal opinion, it does not represent the opinion of the Facebook Oversight Board, nor of course the opinion of Facebook.
One argument often brought forward is that Fake News is protected by freedom of speech.
The human rights frameworks that deal with free speech – on a global and even regional level, like the American Convention on Human rights – are extremely valuable and essential. We cannot fight fake news by amending or changing free speech related treaties. To fight fake news, I think it is more helpful to think about them as professional disinformation campaigns — that are sometimes very well funded! – and to focus on the properties and dynamics in the technologies employed by these campaigns. That will be more productive than harming free speech.
What can companies do better?
Caring about human rights implications is no longer an issue that belongs to the state or public power alone. Since 2011, human rights frameworks are increasingly directed at the private sector. Companies have an important role to play here, and they still need to wake up. How do they reconcile businesses with the values of political communities, with the values of humanity? This is one of the most important discussions we have at the moment.
What do you think is the biggest challenge technology presents us with over the coming years?
It is a set of very large scale challenges. We have to promote connectivity for everyone, because it’s part of the infrastructure of how life and survival is organized in today’s world. Then, as soon as people are connected, you have to immediately start a debate about what is the best use for that connectivity and how technology can be a positive force in multiple ways for development, for culture, for learning, for knowledge and so on.
You say one of your biggest fears is that technology will lead us into a direction of convergence. What do you mean by that?
I’m concerned that technology becomes an objective in itself. And that every society and culture will converge to a common denominator that has been set up by technology itself in the first place. In my view this is problematic. Technology should be a starting point, not an ending point. In other words, we shouldn’t talk about technology driving a singularity. We should talk about how we build a multiplicity.
We see a lot of people talking about the singularity. This idea is completely bogus, but politically, it’s very powerful because it paves the way for technology working as the convergence force. Instead, I believe technology should be a starting point that actually enables and empowers multiple ways of being in the world and of living – driving multiple ways of learning, culture, knowledge.
Ronaldo Lemos is a lawyer specializing in technology, intellectual property, media and public policy. He is a partner at PNM Advogados, a leading law firm in Brazil, and has twenty years of experience in the private and public sectors. Dr. Lemos was a Visiting Scholar at Oxford, Princeton, the MIT Media Lab and a Visiting Professor at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). He co-created Brazil’s Internet Bill of Rights Law (2014) and Brazil’s National IoT Plan (2018). Previously, Dr. Lemos was Vice-President of the Social Communication Council in the National Congress in Brazil. Dr. Lemos writes weekly about law and technology for Folha de S. Paulo, one of Brazil’s most widely read newspapers.
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