Bridging Bytes and Barrios: Brazil’s Distinctive Landscape for AI Policy

by Katherine Chou

São Paulo sprawls out in an immense metropolis where the ceaseless hum of motorbikes stickered with ads mingles with Bentleys, and towering skyscrapers cast long shadows over colorful street art. Michelin-star restaurants coexist with food carts selling coxinhas; we walk through bustling markets brim with the scents of tropical fruits, navigating between the juxtaposition of favelas and luxurious penthouses. 

São Paulo is the most populous city outside of Asia, the wealthiest city by GDP in Latin America, and one of the most unequal cities in the world. Thousands of multimillionaires live in São Paulo, along with over 52,000 homeless people. The life expectancy in the rich, predominately-White neighborhood of Pinheiros is more than 20 years longer than in the poor, predominantly-Black quarters. Income disparities in São Paulo are strongly correlated with racial background, reflecting broader socio-economic inequalities across Brazil. Every street we walk down is also a continuous testament to São Paulo’s cosmopolitan diversity. Here is home to the largest Arab, Italian, and Japanese diasporas in the world. In 2016, inhabitants of the city came from over 200 countries. 

Amid the urban cacophony and brutal contrasts of São Paulo’s daily life, the global AI revolution—largely driven by the global powerhouses like the US, China, and Europe—may seem distant and abstract. However, it is precisely within this context of unique social dynamics that Brazil is pioneering AI policy. 

This is not where Deep Blue checkmated the world chess champion, nor where AlphaGo outmaneuvered human Go masters. São Paulo’s skyline wasn’t the backdrop when OpenAI’s ChatGPT swept the world, or when autonomous cars first took to the streets. Yet, Brazil is a melting pot of myriad cultures, aspirations, and challenges. And while these groundbreaking AI advancements may have been birthed oceans away, their implications resonate universally. 

AI, in its essence, delves deep into the human experience, and São Paulo, with its vast tapestry of lives and stories, serves as a potent reminder: at its core, the AI revolution is about us, about people, and how this transformative technology will reshape our world. 

The International AI Stage: Brazil’s Position in Global AI Development 

In April 2021, the Brazilian government launched the National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence, a report outlining how the country will boost development of technology while ensuring ethical use. On September 29, 2021, Brazil’s House of Representatives approved the Brazilian Artificial Intelligence Bill (“Bill No. 21/2022”), which sought to provide a legal framework for the development and use of AI. The senate established a commission (CJSUBIA), led by Ricardo Villas Bôas Cueva, a judge in Brazil’s Superior Court of Justice, to improve the bill. In December 2022, they delivered a 900-page report and an alternative bill, Bill No. 2.338/2023, which gave more nuanced thoughts and incorporated more opinions of external experts on what Brazil’s regulation of artificial intelligence should look like. 

While Europe has its recent AI Act and the titans of AI development realistically won’t include Latin America in the near future, Brazil’s socio-economic and racial landscape paints a uniquely intricate picture, making its approach to AI a global point of interest. Brazil’s labyrinthine web of inequalities and political layout provides a fertile ground for AI’s growth and challenges. 

Dichotomies and Disparities: Race and Socioeconomic Inequalities 

Economic disparity is glaring: the six richest men in Brazil have the same wealth as the poorest 50% of the population. Racial inequality is similar: Professor Mariana Valente, a member of the Brazilian Senate Commission of Jurists working on AI Regulation, tells that Black women receive the lowest income in the country. “Brazil is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and these inequalities are multidimensional,” she says. “They correlate to income, race, gender, territories.” Any deployment of AI is going to be landing in a really complex and difficult landscape of inequalities. Even though Europe has developed comprehensive AI governance principles, Brazil has different needs to meet; Valente states that “with such high levels of inequality, in which you have so much violence, police brutality, […] we should be stricter than Europe.”

The plight of Afro-Brazilians such as the activist and politician Marielle Franco brings to light the systemic challenges faced by marginalized communities in the country. Marielle Franco is a well-known name in São Paulo. She had grown up in a favela of Rio de Janeiro, and at 36, became a city council member and ardently advocated for the rights of Black Brazilians, women, and the LGBTQ+ community. Two years later, in 2018, she was assassinated, a crime believed to be politically motivated due to her vocal criticism of police brutality and the militarization of Rio’s favelas. Franco’s murder underscores the persistent violence against Afro-Brazilian women, the LGBTQ+ community, and other vulnerable groups. Six in ten Brazilian women murdered are Black; Brazil has the highest rates of trans-related murders in the world, 16.4 percent higher than any other country, and emphasizes the vulnerability of these communities.

In 2017, Brazil saw 445 anti-LGBTQ+ related deaths, including the harrowing case of Dandara dos Santos, a transgender woman brutally attacked by five individuals. In 2013, in Rio’s Costa Barros, Maria de Fatima dos Santos and her daughter, Alessandra de Jesus, were killed in a police operation. In 2014, Cláudia da Silva Ferreira was shot during a police operation, and dragged 1,000 feet when the police car door opened by accident; she died from her injuries. Historical events, like the 1994 Nova Brasília massacres—where police executed 13 people and sexually assaulted 3 young girls—bear witness to the extent of police violence in the country. The systemic targeting of communities, predominantly women, showcases the deeply ingrained prejudices in the Brazilian state apparatus.

With emerging AI technologies, facial recognition technology in public spheres has become a burning topic in Brazil. Grassroots movements like Ban Biometric Surveillance, TireMeuRostodaSuaMira, and #SaidaMinhaCara advocate for a halt or complete ban on remote biometric surveillance, with the context of Brazil’s tumultuous past with police violence and dictatorial regimes.

AI’s Labor Paradigm: Work in the Age of AI and Gig Economy

Perhaps the area of AI most salient to the working class is how AI automation will replace certain jobs. The gig economy offers a glimpse into a future where companies might sidestep traditional labor rights and reduce their roster of full-time employees.

Historically, Brazil has had a rich tapestry of labor norms. Unions, particularly, have played an instrumental role, offering a voice to workers and ensuring that their rights aren’t trampled upon. The rise of the gig economy poses significant challenges to a country where labor rights have been a central topic, especially with figures like President Lula da Silva, who came from a union background. 

The gig economy, rooted in flexibility and platform-based work, challenges traditional norms; Uber is one example. A glance at Uber’s Brazil-based report reveals a narrative emphasizing the autonomy and opportunity their platform offers to drivers. While this sounds nice on one hand, the flip side of this “You don’t work for us. You work for yourself,” narrative is that thousands are denied formal rights and benefits. 

My firsthand experience with Brazil’s gig economy began with an Uber ride from the airport. The entire trip, we took an Uber and reveled in the low prices relative to those in the United States. Yet, while we enjoyed the prices, each ride presented individuals navigating the flexible yet uncertain waters of gig work. 

The modern world, driven by advancements in AI and technology, witnesses a seismic shift in employment paradigms: a move from traditional employment norms to the burgeoning gig economy. These changes raise questions about rights to social security and the philosophical value of work itself. 

São Paulo, Brazil’s pulsating economic heart, stands testament to this. The streets of this metropolis are flooded with drivers and notably, motorbike delivery personnel. While these workers have become the lifeblood of urban logistics, they’re not formally recognized as employees. As a result, they stand excluded from the protective canopy of social security, which provides financial support to retirees. And when they try to resist— through strikes or protests—the lack of organized unions makes mobilizing a Herculean task. 

In July 2020, delivery workers from various apps successfully held strikes called “Breque dos APPs” demanding better working conditions and various different wants. Labor prosecutor Renan Kalil states in a 2020 interview with the Instituto Humanitas Unisinos: “Although some leaders stood out in the process, there was no centralization of the organization in a single figure.” While the first strike gained traction, the second lost steam, as organizing this way is difficult. 

The primary struggle of working towards a fairer gig economy lies in defining workers’ rights. While there is a call for granting them due rights, platform-based companies resist bearing the inevitable additional costs that come with recognizing gig workers as traditional employees. 

President Lula offers a potential solution: creating platform worker co-operatives. Lula’s concerns reflect the foundational principles of organized labor, emphasizing collective bargaining and shared ownership. Coming from a union background, Lula’s concerns resonate with the foundational principles of organized labor, ensuring rights and representation.

Discussing the gig economy also raises questions about the philosophical value of work. The gig economy, in many ways, epitomizes this shift, challenging our traditional notions of employment, value, and human contribution. As AI automates tasks and reshapes the workforce, there’s a need to introspect on the essence of work.

The friction between modern platform-based employment and traditional labor norms presents urgent questions about employment definitions in the 21st century. As Brazil negotiates these challenges, the broader implications—economic, social, cultural, and philosophical—will shape its future trajectory.

The monumental home to the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of SãoPaulo | Photo by Dylan Gunn

Politics, Law, and Digital Evolution: The Legal Landscape in the Digital Age

Brazil’s journey through AI regulation is intrinsically tied to its dynamic political and legal landscape. For example, fake news came into the legislative spotlight after the last presidential election was so influenced by misinformation and social media. Social media played a pivotal role in the elections of both Jair Bolsonaro and Lula da Silva. Bill 2630, also known as the “Fake News Law,” was proposed in 2020 – and moved through the legislature in 2023 – puts the onus on the internet companies, search engines and social messaging services to find and report illegal material. This bill is a reflection of the struggle to preserve democratic integrity in a digital age, and Brazil is at the forefront of that.

Brazil’s Multi-Party Mosaic creates a unique situation as well. Unlike the polarities often observed in two-party systems like the US, Brazil’s multi-party structure adds layers of complexity to its political discourse. The existence of numerous parties, not all strictly bound by rigid ideological lines, often results in more collaborative and coalition-driven governance. This can lead to more moderate policies, as extreme ideological stances might need tempering to achieve consensus. However, it also means navigating a sea of interests, which can sometimes delay or dilute essential reforms. In São Paulo, the crucible of innovation, this intricate dance of politics is pronounced. The city’s position as the vanguard of technological growth, marked by AI startups and tech giants, means every piece of legislation is a result of intense negotiations. While the diversity of voices ensures a holistic approach, the consensus-building can sometimes be protracted.

And then there is the adaptability of Brazil’s Constitution. Marcela Mattiuzzo, an antitrust and data protection lawyer, spoke about Brazil’s relatively younger age and openness to constitutional revisions. “Our constitution is from 1988 […] the constitution is so young and able to be malleable.” She had been Advisor and Chief of Staff to the Office of the President at CADE, the Brazilian antitrust authority—and she has seen the constitution go through revisions. “Recently, Brazil, for example, established a fundamental right to personal data production […] Now imagine the US Constitution trying to add data protection.” It wouldn’t happen. As AI continues to test the boundaries of privacy, rights, and governance, Brazil’s adaptive legal mindset might allow it to draft more contemporary and relevant regulations.

Brazil’s Seat at the AI Table

Brazil’s interplay of politics, technology, and law is a fascinating tableau. As the nation grapples with AI’s challenges and promises, its unique political and legal DNA will undoubtedly shape its trajectory. As Brazil navigates the complex realms of AI, it does so with the weight of its rich cultural history, the challenges and promises of its evolving economy, and the dynamism of its political and legal structures.

With AI taking a central role in modern societies, Brazil offers a compelling case study—a nation where the glitter of algorithms meets the grit of ground realities. In Brazil, this dance unravels against a backdrop rich in cultural nuances, economic divides, and political dynamics. The story of AI in Brazil is not just a tale of machines, but a saga where technology waltzes with the very soul of a nation, with all its brilliance and flaws.

Katherine Chou is a junior in Silliman. She can be contacted at