CRISTIANO CIPRIANO POMBO
SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT REPORTING FROM RIO DE JANEIRO
It was the beginning of 2013 when a good friend of Ronaldo Lemos’ committed suicide. The friend in question was Aaron Swartz, the founder of Reddit and internet activist who was arrested in the US after hacking and releasing to the public articles pertaining to a scientific magazine from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
Mr. Lemos obtained his Masters degree from Harvard, teaches law at UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) and is also the leader of ITS Rio (Technology and Society Institute). But the incident that was heard around the world made the Brazilian lawyer ask himself a single question: What does the future have in store for activists and people who fight for the democratization of technology?
The tragic death of his colleague and the stress of seeing to the consolidation of the demands that would make up the Civil Rights Framework for the Internet (the law which regulates the internet in Brazil) made Mr. Lemos lose 20 kilos. He also stopped shaving and begin to rethink his activism.
Up until then, he’d already compiled plenty of achievements. Not only did he lead the research group on Technology and Society at the Getlio Vargas Foundation, he also helped regulate creative commons (concerning copyright law), confronted the Ecad (Brazil’s national copyright collection agency) when it came to subsidies related to digital productions, and already had an op-ed column at Folha.
It was while he was mapping out the cultural industry on the outskirts of Brazilian cities for the book “Tecnobrega – Par Reinvents the Music Industry”, that he became certain of the enormous potential that technology contains. “The key to understanding Brazil is at the bottom of the social pyramid. Brazilians have an incredible capacity to subvert and create things on top of technology: whether it’s making music or founding a business. They are an example to the rest of the world.”
ANTENNA TO THE REST OF THE WORLD
The technological and information-based society we live in had already revealed itself to Mr. Lemos when he was a child. Back when he was 10 years old, his hometown of Araguari, Minas Gerais, was selected by the Ministry of Communications to test Brazil’s fledgling cable TV project.
“I don’t know why [the town] was selected. But the impact it had from the mid-1980s onward was huge. It was immeasurable”, he recalled while reflecting on what it meant to be a kid from the countryside with access to all sorts of foreign channels. “Not even news channels had that kind of access”.
His acquaintance with new technologies helped him land his first job. While attending the Law School of the University of So Paulo, located at So Francisco square, in So Paulo, in 1995, Mr. Lemos was hired by a law firm because he was one of a select few students to have an e-mail address.
“I’d wanted to go to film school, but I ended up going to law school because my parents found it more palatable”, he recalled. As a student, he was already plugged into the technological world. “Back when there were dial-up connections, I remember how people would come to my home and form a line to see how it worked. I had an e-mail address “firstname.lastname@example.org” which I used for my research group at college.” He decided to add the piece of information to his rsum, and only after did he discover that it was the e-mail that had made all the difference and made him get the job.
The job changed Mr. Lemos’ life for good: the office which he worked for was involved in the elaboration of the Cable TV Law (passed in 1995 and revoked in 2011), which regulated the implementation of cable TV throughout the country.
But it was when the “mineiro” (a native from Minas Gerais, in Portuguese) got a scholarship for a master’s program at Harvard that he dove into the world of technology for good. Subsequently, he became a researcher and representative of the MIT Media Lab in Brazil.
Upon returning to Brazil, Mr. Lemos founded the Technology and Research Center (CTS), which was the precursor to ITS, back in 2003.
He met his wife, artist Vivian Caccuri, back in 2005, and started laying the foundations for his great legacy, the Civil Rights Framework for the Internet, which took seven years to consolidate and was signed into Brazilian law in April of 2014.
If you play Pokmon Go or watch Netflix, then you owe it to Civil Rights Framework and to Mr. Lemos. If you use a cell phone that was acquired abroad or that wasn’t approved by Anatel, Brazil’s Agency of Telecommunications agency, then you have Mr. Lemos and ITS to thank.
Not only did the framework protect net neutrality, user privacy and freedom of expression, but it – and, in turn, Mr. Lemos – also became prominent around the world.
So, back in 2013, when he was asking himself about how to handle his own future, the entrepreneur from Minas Gerais ended up reflecting on how to explore the potential in technology so that it can impact people’s lives.
“I work at a company that I created: ITS. That’s why I feel like I have to work twice as hard in order for it to demonstrate it’s worth, be creative, innovate and cause an impact.”
Not only did Mr. Lemos help consolidate the internet framework, which even Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web (www), praised, but he also decided to tackle one of society’s greatest problems: the representational crisis and the lack of trust in today’s politicians.
Thus, he decided to look into the number of bills in the country that were proposed by citizens. What he found out was, ever since the end of the military dictatorship back in the 1980s, only five bills were proposed by the people, the most recent of which was the “Lei da Ficha Limpa” (or “Clean Record Law”), which was approved back in 2010.
In a conversation with judge Mrlon Reis, who authored the bill, he realized that collecting signatures, not to mention the authentication process that ensued, was the biggest obstacle that popular bills had to face.
So he decided to start searching for a technological solution. The quest led him to Blockchain, a system that is capable of creating a unique database that is both secure and authentic. In this case, Mr. Lemos used the system to collect digital signatures, using people’s social security and voting registration numbers.
Through shared knowledge – “I never do anything on my own”, Mr. Lemos observed – the “Mudamos” app came into fruition, collecting signatures for laws proposed by citizens in a secure and simple way.
“The way that technology allows for change is fantastic. It took two years to collect enough signatures for the Clean Record law. Also, there was always the risk that a congressman could request an authentication process for the signatures, through an audit. Now, it can be done in a matter of months, or days”, Mr. Reis said.
“Mudamos”, which was launched in March of 2017, was downloaded by over 500,000 users, who can both propose and endorse bills on the platform.
The tool is backed by article 61 of the constitution which establishes, in short, that Congress, assemblies and city councils must review popular initiatives or bills that have the support of 1% of voters who participated in the last election.
“This makes society the protagonist once again: not just during the elections”, said Mr. Lemos, 41.
“Mudamos” currently displays bills that propose a variety of things: from a recall of members of parliament (revoking their mandates) and clean voting (making it illegal to buy political support), to initiatives to clean up a river in Curitiba, or calling for a referendum in So Paulo regarding the privatization of public services.
The platform is looking forward to growing, and so is Mr. Lemos, the high-tech lawyer who became a social entrepreneur.
Translated by THOMAS MATHEWSON