The digital divide in Brazil is both well-known and well documented . Although trends show growth in the general use of the internet, almost 5 million Brazilian children live in homes without internet access . In terms of quality, the situation is aggravated by the fact that there is a predominance in the use of mobile phones for internet access, especially by poor children. However, during the pandemic times when almost everything is done online, mobile phones do not provide an adequate means for accessing educational platforms due to their devices’ relatively small screen size, lack of keyboard and proper space for taking notes. The digital divide between disadvantaged and more advantaged youth is widening even further due to the fact that many youngsters from poorer backgrounds can only access the internet through prepaid data packages , and their phones often lack memory space for installing new applications and information .
The situation in Brazilian schools is not far better off. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) used in most urban public schools are either outdated or simply insufficient. In addition, the low network quality strongly hinders the use of digital technology by teachers and students .
The COVID-19 pandemic had a considerable impact on widening the digital divide between the haves and the have nots. While children from higher socio-economic status backgrounds were able to follow 89% of the remote learning activities, students with lower backgrounds could only follow 71% of them . Schools with more resources and attended by children from higher-income families were able to successfully offer access to teaching platforms. On the other hand, many children from lower-income families were receiving school materials and interacting with their teachers and peers only through WhatsApp. This was mainly due to zero-rating practices, through which using the internet to access certain applications, such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and YouTube, is unlimited and free of charge. With the high internet prices in Brazil, these types of data packages are quite common in the country and although many consider it an interesting practice to provide unlimited access to certain applications, it has been heavily criticised for violating net neutrality. The long-standing historical inequities, such as infrastructural disparities, and the specific difficulties presented by the pandemic may aggravate not only the digital but more blatantly the educational divide.
The problem of connectivity in Brazil
The above illustrates how big a problem Brazil has with internet connectivity despite the fact that the Brazilian Civil Rights Framework for the Internet — the law that regulates the internet in Brazil — states that access to the internet is a universal right and fundamental to exercising citizenship. Likewise, this access is a means to the realisation of several fundamental rights set forth in the Brazilian Constitution, especially during the pandemic, such as the right to education, leisure and access to information.
In addition, there are several international documents that highlight the importance of internet access being a human right, including the Special Rapporteur Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression . The recently published General Comment 25 on children’s rights in relation to the digital environment is another initiative, affirming that “[m]eaningful access to digital technologies can support children to realize the full range of their civil, political, cultural, economic and social rights. However, if digital inclusion is not achieved, existing inequalities are likely to increase, and new ones may arise” .
We still have a long way to go
In reality, Brazil still has a long way to go to bridge this digital divide and to provide universal and free online access to all children. An opportunity to mitigate this situation arises with the law recently approved by the Brazilian Congress that aims to provide cell phone data packages and technological devices (e.g. tablets) for students and teachers attending Brazilian public schools. The initiative foresees the allocation of 3.5 billion Brazilian reais from the Fund for Universalization of Telecommunications Services (FUST, in Portuguese).
Despite the potential positive impact of the law to the community at large, the President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has been extremely dissatisfied with it . Initially, the president vetoed the bill, the decision, however, was reversed by the Congress. The government then filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court claiming that the law is unconstitutional, and the court granted another 25 days to the government to transfer the resources to the States . One day before the end of this period, Bolsonaro issued a Provisional Measure that eliminated the deadline for transferring the money to schools.
Therefore, more than a result of negligence, Brazilian schools’ lack of internet access is part of a project to dismantle Brazilian public services and its technological sovereignty. Problems with connectivity are long-standing, and the social and economic crisis, intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, is unlikely to be solved quickly. Thus, there is an urgent need for concrete and longitudinal actions – in addition to robust public investments, there is also a need for the recognition that access to the internet is a fundamental right and an essential service. These actions are crucial to guarantee children’s fundamental rights, reduce existing social inequalities, and minimize the great gap in Brazilian education.
About the guest authors André Cardozo Sarli and Elora Fernandes
André Cardozo Sarli is a PhD Candidate in Sociology and Children’s Rights at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. He holds a Master’s Degree in International Law from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies and a Bachelor in Law from the University of São Paulo, Brazil. His current research is focused on how vulnerable Brazilian children appropriate datafying technologies and in doing so, how they perform their rights. He is interested in digital inequalities, AI and Sociolegal studies.
Elora Fernandes is a PhD candidate in Law at the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ). She holds a Master’s Degree in Law and Innovation from the Federal University of Juiz de Fora (UFJF) and a Bachelor’s Degree in Law from the same institution, with an exchange semester at the Universidad de Salamanca (Spain). She is a Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) alumna and editorial assistant at the Brazilian Journal of Empirical Legal Studies. Her current research focus is children’s privacy and data protection by design.
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See, for instance: La Rue, F., Report of the Special Rapporteur on Key Trends and Challenges to the Right of all Individuals to Seek, Receive and Impart Information and Ideas of All Kinds Through the Internet, Human Rights Council, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/17/27 (May 16, 2011). Best, M. L., ‘Can the Internet be a Human Right?’ (2004) 4 Human Rights and Human Welfare 23 at 24; and specifically for the case of Brazil, Hartmann, I. A. (2013). right to free internet: On internet access and social rights. Journal of High Technology Law, 13(2), 297-429.
United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (2021). General Comment No. 25 on Children’s Rights in Relation to the Digital Environment. UN Doc CRC/C/GC/25. https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CRC/C/GC/25&Lang=en
Gaspari, E. O governo retarda a internet nas escolas. O Globo, 08 August 2021. https://oglobo.globo.com/politica/o-governo-retarda-internet-nas-escolas-25145799
Ação Direta de Inconstitucionalidade 6926. Supreme Federal Court. http://portal.stf.jus.br/processos/detalhe.asp?incidente=6216523