Innovation & Equality in the Information Age: The United States and Brazil

By Aaron Shaw

Brazil is trying to catch up on IT on its own terms.

Look up a definition of the digital divide and you will not find information about patents, trademarks or copyrights. Nor will you find a photo of a trade official or an international bureaucrat. Instead, the explanation will focus on cheap computers, mobile phones and free Internet. There may be some discussion of the skills necessary to use these technologies.

Such definitions are only telling half the story, in part because they attribute the divide to scarcity of resources. But the digital divide also persists because of the rules that govern information exchange, limiting the capacity of developing economies to gain from the boom in the Internet and other digital technologies.

Political and economic factors constrain the possibilities for equality in the knowledge-based economy. Some of these factors stem from the prevalence of business models rooted in exclusive forms of intellectual property (IP) as well as in the global enforcement of these regulatory norms.

For many wealthy governments and private investors, IP has historically provided investment protection and an incentive to innovate. However, for lower-income countries and their citizens, IP functions more like a regressive tax on progress—a barrier blocking equitable entry into the network society.

Brazil and the United States have become global standard-bearers for opposing approaches to knowledge-based economic growth. Their differences have fed into far-ranging disputes over the fate of governance in the network society and the relationship between states, markets and citizenship in the digital age. In that process, however, an unlikely consensus has developed, resulting in large part from the convergence of the interests of high-tech companies with those of emerging, powerful economic players such as Brazil. As governments and corporations around the world search for new sources of development and innovation, they should consider how to take advantage of this convergence to promote both equitable and profitable outcomes…

Aaron Shaw is a research fellow with the Cooperation Research Group at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of California, Berkeley.

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