Monthly Archives: December 2008

Three meanings of “free”: after “free beer” and “free speech”, “free the Internet”

I have come across free software advocates who want to expand the range of their social causes and get involved in reforming society itself.

I hope they are already aware of at least three meanings of “free”. This is a friendly reminder if they’re not. Free software advocates are generally familiar with the first two: “free” as in “free beer”, and “free” as in “free speech”. Enough has been said about these two meanings.

There’s a third meaning, and a free software activist who wants to become a social activist should be aware of this one: “free” as in “free all political prisoners”.

In contrast to “free speech”, the third meaning also highlights the current lack of freedom and asserts that this situation must be corrected immediately. The third meaning is fraught with connotations of action and activism. When social activists use the word “free”, it is probably the third meaning they have in mind, with possibly the second meaning. “Free speech” is a somewhat general and almost a motherhood statement. “Free all political prisoners” carries a certain urgency. It is, for instance, pointless to demand “free Mandela” today. He has been out of prison for years. This meaning of “free” suggests a time frame, a demand with a deadline. (By the way, I was a political prisoner in the 1970s.)

A second reminder to free software advocates. Do not presume that once all software is “free”, your work is done. Some free software are more free than others. The BSD license is more free than the GPL. A number of free software licenses, and Creative Commons likewise, rely on the existing copyright system for enforcement. This means that many free software (and Creative Commons) advocates become defenders of copyrights. Once you become a copyright defender, you gain some friends (like the software, music, video, book and publishing industries) and lose other friends (like many social activists, though by no means all). Please think carefully through the implications of copyrights. Check, for instance, the Copyright Dossier by the CopySouth Research Group (CSRG).

A third and final reminder. Most free software advocates are Internet and information and communications technology missionaries. They love the technology and want everyone to embrace it. Please be aware, however, that the Internet today carries some very deeply-embedded biases (ideologies, if you will), which force themselves on all users. And some of these biases are in conflict with fundamental principles strongly held by many social activists. Though I know of more, I will cite only three: the bias for English, the bias for automation, and the bias for globalization. The first two are quite obvious (and will also be subjects for future posts).

The third may need a bit more explanation.

The Internet forces local players to subsidize global players, a bias that is deeply embedded in the technology. This subsidy comes from the simple fact that files sent to a “neighbor” (another user on the same ISP, i.e., local) are charged the same rate as files sent to distant users (say, subscribers on ISPs on the other side of the globe). This is precisely the “advantage” of the Internet, its selling point: the abolition of distance. Everything has become “local”. Yet, local file transfers use very few network resources, while international file transfers use quite a lot — several routers, perhaps undersea cables connecting continents, plus more routers near the destination. In short, local files are charged higher per network resource, compared to global files. The local subsidizes the global — a subsidy for globalization. This is a fundamental injustice — institutionalized theft, even — that lies at the heart of the Internet. Many of the so-called “advantages” and “benefits” of the medium are based on this built-in double-standard.

There is another way by which the Internet forces the poorer local users to subsidize the richer global users. This comes from the growth pattern of the Internet infrastructure of hosts and communication lines.

The Internet grows from the center to the periphery. But very often, the costs of the new communication links, the ports, the leased lines, and all the associated hardware and software infrastructure, are fully paid for by the periphery, in addition to the various one-time and monthly fees charged by the center. Yet, while the periphery requesting the connection shoulders its full cost, both sides benefit from the connection, the center possibly getting even more benefits because it has more users. In short, there is again a hidden subsidy for the center by the periphery. This occurred when the Philippines made its first Internet connection to the U.S. in 1994. It also occurred with other Philippine cities made their Internet connection to Manila. And again, when various towns connected to these cities. And this lopsided charging scheme continues today.

These bizarre subsidies for the rich by the poor will presumably be in place for all time, unless the free software movement and other social movements work successfully to “free the Internet” from these gross injustices.

This is what the third meaning of “free” is all about.

Prehistoric peoples could kill mammoths: how about corporations?

Most legal systems today recognize the registered business firm as a distinct legal person, separate from its stockholders, board of directors or employees. In fact, laws would often refer to “natural or legal persons”. It should therefore be safe to conclude that such registered business firms or corporations are persons (ie, organisms), but not “natural persons”, and therefore not humans.

Other social institutions have been created by humans (State, Church, etc.), but they have never quite reached the state of life and reproductive capacity that corporations attained.

It would be very useful to analyze corporations as if they were a different species, and then to extract ecological insights from the analysis. (By corporations here, I am basically referring to registered business firms, or for-profit corporations).

Corporations are born; they grow; they might also die. They can reproduce and multiply, using different methods, both asexual and sexual. We have bacteria within our bodies as if they were part of us; corporations have humans within them. Their genetic programming – profit maximization – is much simpler than human genetic programming, humans being a bundle of mixed and often conflicting emotions and motives. Corporations’ computational capabilities for such maximization easily exceed most natural persons’ capabilities. Therefore they easily survive better in the economic competition.

It is profit that keeps corporations alive. They are genetically programmed to maximize the flow of profits into their gut. To extract profit from their environment, corporations transform everything into commodities and then make profits by selling them or renting them out. Corporations can transform practically anything into a commodity, including corporations and profits themselves.

Today, corporations are the dominant species on the planet. They have taken over most social institutions and other niches that humans have originally created for themselves. The physical reach of the biggest corporations span the entire globe. The term “globalization” can mean, without exaggeration, the global rule of corporations.

The non-stop transformation of the natural world – the ecological base of human survival – into commodities for profit-making has, in fact, become a threat to the survival not only of human beings but of many other species.

In the same way that we learned to domesticate plants and animals, corporations have learned to domesticate humans. Much of today’s educational process is a process of corporate domestication, reinforced subsequently by corporate-controlled media. Corporations have perfected the art of training humans, using carrot-and-stick methods, to keep them tame and obedient.

Of course, some humans have remained wild and undomesticated. But today, they are outside the mainstream.

Corporations have trained domesticated humans to immobilize, maim, kill or otherwise “neutralize” those fellow-humans who have remained feral and uncontrolled by corporations. But there’s a growing body of feral humans who are now trying to learn how to disable, maim or kill corporations.

Prehistoric humans knew how to kill the largest beasts of their time; modern humans have not yet learned how to kill corporations. Individual humans have practically no hope of fighting off a determined corporate attack. Most confrontations between corporations and communities of humans end up in corporate victory, with humans ending up dead, maimed or subdued and domesticated, their human will broken.

On those occasions when humans manage a victory, it almost never results in the death of the attacking corporation. When corporations lose a battle with feral humans, they can simply withdraw for a while, split into several persons, combine with another person, change their persona, or adopt other survival tricks which they have evolved over time. In fact, when entering new and presumably wild territory, a corporation would often clone itself and send its clone in. Even in the remote possibility that the clone dies from human attacks, the mother firm stays unharmed and as powerful as ever.

In prehistoric ages, our ancestors learned how to repel, disable or kill an attacking mammoth; the challenge of our age is learning how to do the same with corporations.

Restrictive copyright practices

I referred in an earlier post to increasingly restrictive copyright practices. These practices are like a tightening noose around the neck of everyone in search of knowledge.

Here’s one example:

Most online academic journals have been charging academics, researchers and students to download individual articles ever since new technologies made this possible. This is an extension of the older practice of charging for individual copies of articles on academic journals. Of course, once one had a copy of the article, whether in print or in digital format, the copy could then be shared with colleagues, passed around, photocopied and so on, in the usual way we all share things with each other. This is how knowledge gets disseminated after all, so that other may build on old knowledge and the search for new knowledge may continue.

In the Dec. 6-10 CopySouth meeting, one presentor rued a new and much more restrictive practice by some online journals: when you download and pay for a copy of an article, the digital file has an expiration date, after which the file erases itself! The logical extension of this highly restrictive practice is pay-per-view, which is now standard practice in the video industry. In addition, users are prohibited from disabling this automatic self-destruct mechanism and are threatened with a lawsuit, should they try to do so.

Similar highly restrictive practices are now finding their way into university and school libraries, especially where librarians have come under the spell of the ideology of knowledge monopolists. Fortunately, most librarians still recognize that their work is about disseminating, rather than restricting the dissemination of knowledge. They therefore balk at prohibiting, or even warning library users against, the photocopying of library materials.

This combination of technical and legal padlocking of information, so that information rentiers like journal publishers may strengthen their monopolistic hold on knowledge, is also the subject of my article Undermining Abundance.

Mechanism like these prevent ordinary people like us from taking full advantage of the promise of abundance made possible by digital technologies.

A meeting of copyright researchers and activists

I just attended the December 6-10 meeting in Kerala, India of the CopySouth Research Group (CSRG), an international network of copyright researchers and activists. The discussions were intense but cordial. We were all critical of the current state of copyright laws and regulations, which had become so restrictive that the copyright regime was becoming a major obstacle to access to knowledge. This was happening not only in scientific circles, where journals have established monopolistic practices over scientific research articles, but also in schools and universities, where photocopying by students and teachers was being criminalized. In subsequent posts, I will cover some of the ideas discussed in the meeting.

For this post, I want to focus on an interesting point about alternatives to the existing copyright regime. These ranged from Creative Commons, an idea which has been adopted in many parts of the world, free/open source software, to proposals to abolish the copyright system itself because it creates monopolies over cultural expressions. Given the range of proposals, it is easy to imagine how intense the debates were.

I eventually realized that some of the debates could have been avoided.

To see why this was so, consider the construction of a house. We could debate the architectural approach, the placement of rooms, the choice of building materials, etc. etc. In the course of building the house, we need to build scaffoldings. Art as well as science is involved in building a house. Also in building the scaffolding. But the requirements of the scaffolding are different from the requirements of the house itself. The criteria for a good house are different from a good scaffolding. Most important of all, the scaffoldings have to be torn down, when the house is ready to be used.

Some of the alternatives proposed to the copyright system are actually scaffoldings. Others are part of the house itself. Thus it makes no sense to debate whether the house is better than the scaffolding.

Alternatives like compulsory licensing, Creative Commons and the free software version called Gnu Public License (GPL) are often criticized because they will work only under the present copyright system and therefore require their advocates to defend the current system. They therefore find themselves at odds with more radical proponents who want to abolish the copyright system itself and replace it with another which does not create monopolies over ideas or their expressions.

But if the two sides realized that they are actually looking at the scaffolding and the house, they will quickly realize that the debate was unnecessary.

Compulsory licensing, Creating Commons, and GPL will reinforce the culture of free copying, sharing and exchange that will eventually lead to the collapse of the current copyright system, giving way to non-monopolistic alternatives to encouraging creative work and rewarding intellectual activity.

Organic rice from the rice terraces of Ifugao

In a meeting I attended last December 3, I heard Gov. Teddy Baguilat himself, governor of the province of Ifugao, describe his plans for organic production in Ifugao, home of the world-famous Ifugao rice terraces. Ifugao’s commitment to organic farming means four of the Philippines’ 89 provinces are now committed to organic production: Cebu, Ifugao, Negros Occidental and Negros Oriental.

There may even be more than four. Ifugao is hosting on January 29-31, 2009 in Lagawe, Ifugao, the 4th Regional Organic Congress in the Cordilleras. The Cordillera mountain ranges in Northern Luzon of the Philippines is home to the country’s Igorots. These hardy indigenous peoples built with their bare hands and a few hand tools thousands of kilometers of rice terraces, considered by many to be the eighth wonder of the world.

The Cordillera region includes Abra, Apayao, Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga and Mountain Province.

The Benguet vegetable industry is so heavily chemicalized that nearly 90% of all cancer cases in the Baguio General Hospital, a doctor there told me, came from the town of Buguias, where Benguet’s vegetable production is concentrated. The five other provinces, however, hold the promise of organic vegetables, rice and other products for their inhabitants and the surrounding regions.

In fact, Gov. Baguilat says, at least five towns of Ifugao have no market for agrochemicals, and are therefore already “organic by default”. These include the towns of Banaue, Mayaoyao, Hungduan, Upper Kiangan (Asipulo) and Hingyon. Ifugao is already exporting 10 tons of organic indigenous rice, the tinawon, to the U.S., he says. They can also supply organic coffee. The main problem, according to him, is linking producers to markets and third-party organic certification, and that’s what they are working on now.

If five of the six Cordillera provinces join the organic bandwagon, that could make it eight provinces out of 89 soon. We are moving forward!

Low-power community radio: a technology for localization

For every criticism, it is good to propose an alternative, if one is available. My earlier post was critical of the Internet for its built-in bias for globalization, which in effect forces the poor to subsidize the rich. I’m not saying we should not use the Internet, but it is important to be aware of what it is forcing us to do. Awareness is the first step towards change and reform.

There is a technology that is almost the opposite of the Internet in many ways. This is low-power community radio. This technology excels where the Internet stumbles. Although it is much older than the Internet, its full development has been stunted by highly biased government regulations that have kept broadcasting a virtual monopoly of the rich.

The following piece is on low-power community radio is Chapter 25 in my book Towards a Political Economy of Information (2004). IT is information technology and AT, appropriate technology.

25. IT or AT?

This is a comparison of two technologies for information exchange – the global Internet and low-power community radio. It is based on the following considerations: user one-time entry cost; recurring user costs; network server one-time entry costs; recurring network server costs; equipment life; impact on jobs; local culture; production of equipment; source of information; potential reach; best use; interactivity; advertising; information goods marketing; sensory demands; health issues; accessibility; gate keepers; default paradigms; new technologies; government attitude; development agencies attitude; NGO attitude; benefits to rich countries; and proposed alternate approaches. The costs are based on Philippine prices, which should more or less reflect typical developing country figures.

In a way, the two contrasting approaches may be described by the common keywords that describe them: information technology (the Internet) or appropriate technology (low-power radio)?

User one-time entry cost

The Internet: Zero for telecenter users. However, telecenter users will find themselves at a huge disadvantage vis-à-vis other Internet users due to the limitations of computing without one’s own home or office PC. For mainstream Internet involvement, one would need at the minimum a subscription to an ISP, with its corresponding fees, as well as the cost of a computer, modem and telephone line. With used equipment, one can probably get set up with around $200.

Low-power radio: Zero for 80-90% of the population who already have a radio set. For the small minority of the poor don’t have one yet, the typical cost of a small AM/FM set is US$10-20 which is probably affordable to all but the poorest of the poor.

Recurring user costs

The Internet: Whether using a telecenter or one’s own Internet subscription, the minimum recurring user cost will probably range at around one US dollar for every one to three hours. The numbers are still going down, though gradually. Currently, Philippine prices probably reflect a fight for market share more than for return on investment. A recurring cost that is often taken for granted is the cost of maintenance and repair, which can reach, annually, 5-10% of the equipment cost. In many areas, lack of spare parts can delay repair for months while unskilled or dishonest repairmen can make the problem worse. At times, the cost of repair can approach the cost of new equipment. Some laptops are so difficult to repair that they are in effect throw-away equipment, discarded once they break down.

Low-power radio: A radio owner’s recurring cost, assuming a rural setting unreached by electricity grid, is simply the cost of a set of batteries (US$1-2) every few months. The cost is negligible where grid electricity is available. This recurring cost is truly affordable to most of the rural poor, many of whom are spending this amount today for their transistor radio.

Network server one-time entry costs

The Internet: To set up a network server involves much higher costs than a simple user. A small server on the Internet would initially cost around US$1,000-3,000 for the CPU, modem, phone line and the initial ISP subscription.

Low-power radio: A basic FM micro-power radio station would cost around US$2,000-5,000. One can probably say that a micro-power station would cost about as much as a high-end Internet server. An organization or institution which can afford computers should be able to afford a micro-power radio station. The big question mark is the licensing cost, a politically-imposed cost which does not exist for Internet servers.

Recurring network costs

The Internet: Recurring network server costs would include training costs, staff salaries, and connectivity costs (i.e., the cost of dial up and dedicated lines). Training and staff costs tend to be high, because of the unusually rapid changes in the technology and the high turnover of technical people. Connectivity may cost around $100-1000/mo. Since servers normally have to run twenty-four hours a day, an annual maintenance cost of 5-10% of the equipment cost must definitely be figured in.

Low-power radio: Because the technology is mature and standard, training and staff costs tend to be lower. There are minimal costs for electricity and supplies, and no connectivity costs, although a radio station might want an Internet connection for access to more information.

Equipment life

The Internet: The life of Internet equipment is relatively short due to unusually rapid changes not on ly in the technology but in the standards themselves. This, in effect, results in very high depreciation costs.

Low-power radio: Equipment life tends to be relatively long due to mature analog technology and stable standards. The useful life of analog audio and radio equipment can easily reach three to five times that of Internet equipment.

Cost: conclusion

The Internet: Considering the generally high cost for user and network server equipment, especially if maintenance and replacement costs are factored in, the Internet will probably remain mostly a tool for the elite (i.e., high- and some medium-income sectors) for quite sometime.

Low-power radio: This technology is definitely affordable to low-income sectors (those earning US$5/day or lower).

Impact on jobs

The Internet: Computers enforce the automation paradigm, which displaces labor with machines. New ICT-based jobs may be created, which may tend to pay higher especially in foreign firms, encouraging a shift to jobs in the ICT sector. However, these jobs are also subject to the automation paradigm and thus may also be replaced later by machines. Furthermore, those who lose their jobs to machines may be the older and unskilled workers, who are often poor candidates for retraining.

Low-power radio: Radio does not have the built-in automation paradigm of the computer, and thus poses little threat against existing jobs.

Local culture

The Internet: The Internet requires read/write literacy. Its full benefit is available only to those who are familiar with English. Knowledge of English is essential when one goes into programming the technology.

Low-power radio: Community radio stations will naturally adopt the local language, given their local reach. Radio is also very compatible with pre-literate cultures that rely on oral traditions.

Production of equipment

The Internet: Internet hardware, software and connectivity are mostly imported. Very few companies are able to make the integrated circuits that comprise the basic parts of most Internet equipment.

Low-power radio: Hardware for low-power radio stations are simpler and easier to produce locally. Local, small-scale assembly of equipment is entirely possible.

Source of information

The Internet: Bulk of the material on the Internet is foreign material. Due to the sheer volume of information available, there is always something interesting to be found. But it is less useful for getting specific local information.

Low-power radio: Due to its limited reach, low-power radio stations have little choice but to deal mostly with local material.

Potential reach

The Internet: The Internet’s global reach may cover up to several hundred million Internet users worldwide. But this potential reach is limited by the connection speed, by Internet gatekeepers, and by the dominant Internet language of English.

Low-power radio: FM micro-power stations can usually be received by radio sets within the line of sight. This can be very localized, in the case of valleys surrounded by hills or mountains. The area of coverage can be wider there the topography is more level, or where the radio station is on a hill overlooking a wider area.

Best use

The Internet: The best Internet applications are electronic mail, mailing lists, information searching, and international or national communications. Its biggest plus is flexibility, which makes it possible to mimic various media, paving the way for media convergence on a single global infrastructure.

Low-power radio: Community radios are most suited to local information dissemination, for building local public opinion, and for strengthening local community. In remote areas where it is the only contact of isolated families to the outside world, a community radio that can receive phone calls from the outside (say, from overseas contract workers) has also been used to announce urgent messages to individuals/families.

Interactivity

The Internet: Facilities for feedback, exchange and dialog are built in. However, it can also be used as a one-way medium if little importance is attached to two-way interaction. Internet response times are reckoned in milliseconds to minutes.

Low-power radio: A radio transmitting station is a one-way medium. But radio programs can and do combine technologies (such as incoming phone lines, beepers, text messaging, discussion panels, roving reporters with two-way radios, etc.) to provide feedback, exchange and dialog. Response times are reckoned in seconds to days (for mailed-in feedback).

Advertising

The Internet: Like television, the Internet is a very good medium for advertising. Besides full-color, full-motion video, the promise of immediate response through credit card purchases makes the Internet a much more powerful advertising medium than even television.

Low-power radio: Radio is only a passable medium for advertising, because it does not have the multi-sensory attractions that television and the Internet can provide.

Information goods marketing

The Internet: The Internet is the perfect medium for marketing information goods, which can be directly downloaded from the Internet and immediately paid for online with a credit card.

Low-power radio: Radio is a poor medium for marketing information goods, because it is not possible to selectively download information material from the radio; nor can the technology be used as a payment mechanism.

Sensory demands

The Internet: Multi-media gives audio-visual and even full motion capability. For high end systems, 3-D is now possible; the future promises virtual reality. The Internet requires concentration and full attention of the user. The full sensory feed that the Internet provides may encourage passive reception and discourage highly symbolic thought and the use of one’s imagination. The Internet is inaccessible to the deaf or the blind, although some special but expensive equipment may be able to help the blind.

Low-power radio: Being an audio-only medium may be a limitation. But it can also be an advantage. Radio may be enjoyed while at work. The listener may engage in other activities while listening. Because it has no visual input, radio can in fact encourage the use of one’s imagination. The technology is accessible to the blind, though not to the deaf.

Health issues

The Internet: Health concerns include radiation effects from high-frequency, very-high frequency, and near-microwave emissions; the impact of video monitors on eyesight; and Internet addiction. A computer user stares at a radiation source (the screen) barely a foot or two away, and for many hours on stretch. As more and more, including high school and even elementary students, do this on a daily basis, we can expect eyesight problems to become widespread.

Low-power radio: Radiation from broadcast transmitters is also a source of concern, but the risks are less for micro-power stations.

Accessibility

The Internet: The communication channels and servers of cyberspace are mostly private space. Many of those initially set up by governments are increasingly being privatized. This means that any claim of a right to access to the medium can be negated by counterclaims of the private owners of the medium.

Low-power radio: The radio spectrum is a public space. Thus, the public has an inherent right to access the medium. And an inherent right to use it. Today, however, this right is restricted by government through exclusionary licensing requirements. Such requirements are often justified with two arguments: 1) the radio spectrum is limited, so its use must be regulated; and 2) national security requires strict regulation of radio transmitter lest they be used for anti-government activity. Both are false arguments. Even in the largest towns, small cities and most of the larger cities, only a few AM or FM stations are active; many frequency slots are unused and therefore available. In many towns, not even a single station is operating. Like radio, the Internet can also be used for anti-government activity. Yet, most governments impose no licensing requirements on Internet servers. They can always invoke national security anyway, should a server start to engage in anti-government propaganda. There is no reason why the same liberal policy cannot be adopted for community radio stations.

Gate keepers

The Internet: The Internet is not as democratic as it is often hyped to be. Internet gate keepers exercise control over the medium, though such control may often be invisible and unintrusive but it can be as absolute as absolute can be. Gate keepers include standards-setting bodies, IP address authorities, domain name owners, communication channel and server owners, search engines, portals, mailbox providers, mailing list owners and moderators, and Internet service providers. Increasingly, these gate keepers are private entities and firms who are not accountable to the public for their policies and actions.

Low-power radio: Radio has its own gate keepers, such as radio station owners, managers and announcers. But the biggest gate keeper of all is the government, through highly restrictive licensing requirements.

New technologies

The Internet: The next major advance will probably be virtual reality – 3-D, tactile suits and other reality-enhancing developments. This development will probably worsen the negative elements we have identified about the Internet.

Low-power radio: A technology called spread spectrum, which allows many stations to share a segment of the radio spectrum with minimal interference. This technology is the answer to the so-called scarcity of the radio spectrum.

Default paradigms

The Internet: The Internet is not a neutral technology. It contains built-in values and default paradigms. These include: global competition, automation and the replacement of workers with machines, subsidy for global players, US/Europe-centric, Anglo-Saxon culture, and high-tech advocacy.

Low-power radio: The built-in values of community radio include local orientation, oral tradition, community-centeredness, local culture, and intermediate technology advocacy.

Government attitude

The Internet: Governments tend to embrace the technology, with some exceptions). No duties are imposed; the legal requirements are minimal; no license is usually required to set up an Internet server. Following the lead of US and Europe, governments often adopt the policy of investing heavily in the new technology.

Low-power radio: Governments are almost one in restricting, taxing, heavily regulating, controlling and monitoring the technology. A license is invariably required to operate a station. The legal requirements are difficult and often exclusionary.

Development agencies attitude

The Internet: Funding agencies actively encourage, support, and fund ICT projects. In fact, they may even pressure NGOs to adopt ICTs (as when they insist on emailed attachments for reports). They are working hard to extend the reach of the Internet and to protect it from authoritarianism.

Low-power radio: With very few exceptions, radio broadcast projects see to get low priority. There is mostly silence on radio spectrum democracy, radio access rights, and universal access to broadcast equipment.

NGO attitude

The Internet: NGOs are eager to explore the technology. Many have embraced it and have invested heavily in equipment. An increasing number are getting their own domain name and setting up their own websites. While the advantages are real for NGOs heavily involved in international work, they are not so obvious for local NGOs.

Low-power radio: There are very few NGO advocates of community radio. They are usually discouraged by the very restrictive government licensing requirements and the little support they could get from development agencies.

Benefits to rich countries

The Internet: As the Internet expands, rich countries will enjoy a huge expansion of their markets for hardware, software connectivity, consultancy and other ICT services. By using the Internet to tap cheap IT labor and expertise in poor countries, the rich countries will be able to minimize immigration and strengthen their protectionist policies in restricting the movement of labor. The rapid spread of credit cards and e-commerce will also expand the markets for their other non-IT goods. Because they are already information economies, rich countries are masters of ICT and are in the best position to take advantage of the new technologies.

Low-power radio: The AM/FM sets needed by the remaining 10-20% of poor without one, to ensure 100% coverage, can be served by local production. The same can be done with micro- power broadcast stations. By enhancing community interaction, low-power stations can encourage the development of the local economy, and reduce outmigration. By encouraging local commerce, local stations are less helpful in expanding the markets of rich countries. Community radio merges better with the needs of agricultural and industrializing economies.

Proposed alternate approaches

The Internet: The government must reduce the overemphasis on Internet infrastructure at the expense of other equally important infrastructure. No special tax breaks or duty exemptions should be granted to Internet infrastructure. The government should mandate the use of free/open software in the public sector. Compulsory licensing should be applied on important patented and copyrighted material. Public access stations should be encouraged, and community/public control and ownership over Internet infrastructure should be maintained. Later, the use of the Internet in community radio stations should be explored. Check the viability of a stand-alone VCD player cum CDROM browser (<$40) for low-cost information dissemination.

Low-power radio: The government should give greater priority to local approaches like community radio. The restrictive legal requirements for setting up low-power radio stations should be removed. Such stations should instead enjoy tax breaks and duty exemptions. The local production of AM/FM sets and micro-power broadcast stations should be encouraged. Useful program materials like the Discovery series should be subject to compulsory licensing in a community television pilot project. A wider segment of the broadcast radio spectrum should be allotted for micro-power stations. Ceilings should be established on transmitting power, and these ceilings should be gradually reduced over the years, to allow more stations to go on the air. The expansion of community radio to include some offline facilities for email and lists as well as other intermediate technologies for information networking should also be explored.

A challenge to governments

For a small fraction of the cost of building an Internet infrastructure, a string of community-run low-power radio stations in the countryside can provide the poorest sections of society with an accessible medium for information access that closely matches their information needs.

It is a solution so appropriate that one wonders why it is not widely used.

The problem is an antiquated, highly centralized legal framework which burdens potential radio stations with extremely restrictive requirements that keep access to the radio spectrum in very few hands.

If governments only allowed ordinary people to set up a low-power radio station as freely as they can an Internet server, then we can quickly see which technology truly meets the people’s information needs.

On the Internet: do the poor subsidize the rich?

[“Original title: Perverse subsidies”. It is Chapter 13 in my book Towards a Political Economy of Information (2004). I reproduce it here because it raises an issue that is taken very much for granted today.]

It was appropriate technology advocate E.F. Schumacher, author of the widely-acclaimed book Small is Beautiful, who once said that technologies often carry a built-in ideology which is so deeply embedded that one can’t have a technological transplant without getting at the same time an ideological transplant. Among the examples Schumacher cited were nuclear power and the Concorde jet.

To this list, we might also add the current darling of the media, the Internet. The Internet’s design provides a built-in subsidy for globalization, and all Internet users are forced to contribute to this hidden subsidy, whether they like it or not.

Distance-dependent costs

Before the Internet, most telecommunications fees were distance-dependent, because the costs are distance-dependent. One paid more to call another country than to call one’s neighbor. In fact, one often paid a lot more, because many governments adopted the policy of making international communications subsidize local communications, making communications more affordable to local citizens.

The trend today, however, is to reverse this idea that international traffic should subsidize local traffic. The reversal is strongly pushed by global corporations, who comprise a huge segment of international communications usage. They have already managed to push back international rates in the U.S. The lower U.S. rates now serve as platform for pressuring other countries to bring down their international rates as well.

In the Philippines today, for example, international charges are going down, while local charges are going up.

At the rate charges are being adjusted, we may soon reach a point where local traffic is subsidizing international traffic, which can lead to a perverse situation where the phone companies make higher margins on poorer users, to subside the richer users.

Subsidizing international traffic

This perverse situation is already the norm among Internet service providers (ISPs), which charge either a flat rate, by the minute, or by kilobyte, regardless of destination. Whatever the scheme, an email to another user in one’s server costs as much as an email to a business contact on the other side of the world. Accessing your own server’s website costs as much as accessing a website anywhere else.

Yet, Internet traffic within the same ISP definitely use less resources than international traffic. If the costs were properly assigned, such local email should cost less than a similar international email; and an email to a user on the same provider should cost even less, because it uses less resources. Yet, the charges are the same – a clear case of local traffic subsidizing international traffic, a hidden subsidy for globalization.

ISPs don’t charge lower for local traffic because distinguishing by destination for accounting purposes would cost too high; it is cheaper to charge the same rate regardless of destination.

Built-in bias vs. local

Here is a technology with a built-in bias against the local in favor of the global, whose very design spares the global the burden of paying for the full cost of its communications, makes it impossible for the local to use its natural competitive advantage of nearness, and forces the local to subsidize the global.

Despite the fact that local Internet traffic use fewer resources than international Internet traffic, most efforts to reflect this in a charging scheme have failed so far, reflecting a rather deeply-embedded bias for globalization within the core of Internet technology.

Thus, hidden in the Internet’s design is a built-in subsidy for globalization, and all Internet users are forced to contribute to this hidden subsidy, whether they like it or not.

Today, the various media, communications and data technologies are converging towards a single Internet backbone. So, it is not far-fetched to assume that similar hidden subsidies for globalization – together with the monoculture that it carries – will soon emerge in telephony and the media, if they are not in fact already in place.

Biased taxation too

If you think about it, such subsidy is also emerging in taxation. Because we joined GATT/WTO, import tariffs (a tax on products made abroad) are going down and will soon be zero for many products. Yet, local taxes (including taxes on products made locally) are going up. What is this if not an emerging subsidy for products made abroad?

Schumacher was right. Together with technological transplants, we are getting ideological ones.

Electronic voting machines fail miserably in Israel

The December 2 primary election of the Israeli Labor party was scheduled to involve 60,000 party members in an internal party voting to select candidates. They were to vote in 275 polling stations spread throughout Israel.

However, in an embarrassing fiasco that may have direct impact on the Labor Party’s chances in the next elections, the party had to postpone the elections when the touch-screen electronic voting machines (EVM) failed miserably. One Labor party leader already knew what the public would say, “if the party does not know how to run its own primary, how can it manage the country?”

Because of the total failure of the automated election system, the party postponed the elections and will be going back to the old but reliable system of “placing paper voting slips in envelopes and dropping them into cardboard ballot boxes, to be counted by hand”.

EVM machine failures in the December 2 fiasco include:

  • machines did not respond to the voters’ touches
  • voters were told they had already voted, although they had not
  • others were told they were in the wrong sector, and were not allowed to vote in their sector
  • long lines led to long waits, and many simply left
  • complaints came from all over the country.

The complete report is here: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1043029.html

This is very interesting.

There is talk that Philippine elected officials are considering an extension of their terms come 2010, when national elections for all elective positions (except village level ones) are going to be held, The 2010 elections will use electronic voting machines nationwide for the first time. There is no contingency plan if the electronic voting machines fail, because no parallel run of the old manual system is planned.

Hence, if the voting machines fail in 2010, as they just did in Israel, all elected officials get an automatic term extension, until a new election could be arranged. The Israeli Labor party scheduled the manual elections for the next day.

But for Philippine officials who desperately want to stay longer in power, who knows?

System of Rice Intensification (SRI): failure still counts as success

Last November 27, I was invited by SRI-Pilipinas trainor Aga Milagroso as guest speaker at the graduation ceremonies of 36 farmers of Alaminos, Pangasinan, whom he had trained over a whole season on the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), organic fertilizer making, indigenous microorganism (IMO) activators through rice fermentation, and other useful knowhow for the farm. SRI-Pilipinas national training coordinator Venancio Garde Jr. also made occasional trips to help handle some sessions. SRI-Pilipinas is the consortium of Philippine NGOs, academics and government researchers promoting SRI and organic farming in the Philippines.

The training was conducted over 16 weekly one-day sessions, spanning a whole planting season. It was a hectic schedule for Aga, who had to make the 4-5 hour trip by bus every week from his hometown in Malolos, Bulacan to Alaminos, Pangasinan. Aga says the enthusiastic response from the graduates made it all worth the effort.

Normally, due to funding limitations, SRI-Pilipinas squeezes all the SRI knowhow in a one-day session that includes a half-day of lectures and a half-day of hands-on training. This particular training program, which was funded by the city government of Alaminos, was quite intensive, giving Aga a chance to go into all kinds of details and to cover a lot more ground.

The graduation program itself was held at the village of Linmansangan in Alaminos, Pangasinan, where the 16 sessions of the season-long training were also held.

Official presence was impressive. The regional office of the Department of Agriculture Ilocos Region sent a representative, Wilfredo Pal-laya. Alaminos Mayor Hernani Braganza also sent a representative, city administrator Col. Wilmer Panabang. City councilor and Committee on Agriculture chair Earl James Aquino and fellow councilor Radoc were also there, as was city agriculturist Ernesto S. de Leon. They all exhorted the farmers to apply what they learned to raise their incomes and to take advantage of the emerging organic market.

Here’s the list of SRI graduates:

Women (9): Carmelita D. Foronda, Delia D. Babera, Delia F. Garcia, Febe B. de Ocampo, Generose V. Castro, Imelda O. Rabanal, Jessica V. Baillo (Secretary), Lorena B. Pamittan, and Rosalinda R. Corpuz. Men (27): Agapito B. Tugade, Alfredo R. Purganan, Alselmo O. Corpuz, Armando H. Bautista, Armando L. Laguisma, Boy Cristy Rosales (Treasurer), Eduardo A. Rabago, Fernald S. de Guzman (Sgt-at-arms), Ismael M. Laguisma (Sgt.-at-arms), Jaime P. Abarra, Jerry D. Ico (Public relations officer), Joel R. Zabala (Business manager), Joseph C. Estrada, Julio C. Abora, Lorenzo B. Laguisma Sr., Lyndon B. Baillo (Business manager), Mariano B. Quiam, Orlando Bernas, Oscar B. Duco, Osmar A. Mejia (President), Paulino R. Rabaya, Ramil G. Camba, Rogelio L. Laguisma Sr. (Vice-president), Rogelio R. Reyes (Public relations officer), Rolly B. Laguisma, Romel C. Purganan (Auditor), and Veronico B. Verzola.

I was all attention, when one of the graduates Osmar Mejia reported the results of the group’s SRI trial. The results were not really impressive. In fact, it looked definitely disappointing to me:

SRI

Conventional

Paddy rice yield (palay)

1,696 kg

4,033 kg

Polished rice (bigas)

1,159 kg

2,086 kg

Gross revenue (P40/kg)

P46,360

P83,448

Total production cost (P)

P43,770

P36,832

Net income (P)

P2,590

P46,616

Mejia explained why, despite the seemingly disappointing results, they felt encouraged and positive about SRI. He said the SRI plot had been ravaged by the dreaded tungro disease as well as the rice bug. But in the training, they learned how to control these through botanical preparations. They were especially awed by the anti-tungro concoction they learned from SRI-Pilipinas national trainor Jun Garde — ordinary cooking oil, onions and garlic ground on a pestle and sprayed on the rice plants. That the plants would actually recover and even give them a small net income was truly impressive, Mejia said. They also saw with their own eyes the high-tillering rates that distinguish SRI-grown plants from the conventionally-grown ones, and they understood what this meant in terms of higher yield, had their triat plot not been attacked by tungro and the rice bug. Thus, when Ilocos DA representative Wilfredo Pal-laya asked the graduates, “Was your trial successful?”, they enthusiastically chorused, “Yes!”

Mejia further explained that the high SRI production cost was mainly due to labor cost, which he attributed to the steep learning curve. Hired hands were not used to the unusual SRI practices and demanded higher wages, and they were slower at their tasks too. The labor costs will go down, he said, as people became more familiar with the method. Already, some graduates were saying that they would in fact save on labor costs, once they had mastered the method.

When it was my turn to talk, I basically told the graduates the following:

Graduation rites are often called “commencement exercises” because, they not only mark the end of one phase but also the beginning of the next phase of the learning process. You are done with the training, it is now time for action, to put into practice what you have learned in the past 16 weeks. Then, SRI-Pilipinas can tap you, like we have tapped Aga, to train your fellow farmers and help them learn how to improve their income, at the same time, creating a healthier environment for themselves and their families.

Actually, SRI-Pilipinas taps for its trainors farmers who have had at least two seasons of experience with SRI. You must try what you learned, learn from your mistakes as well as your successes, and acquire confidence in the method. Then you can teach others.

It doesn’t really take much to learn SRI. SRI-Pilipinas got a grant of a little bit more than eight hundred thousand pesos from the Department of Agriculture, and we were able to train nearly a thousand farmers in 48 provinces with that money, mostly through one-day trainings attended by 25-30 participants. Since you had 16 one-day sessions, you probably know by now sixteen times more than Aga does, who learned his SRI after he attended a one-day seminar conducted by my wife Flora in November 2006 in San Miguel, Bulacan. Aga brought home the primer he got from that seminar, tried SRI, and was immediately successful with it. Of course you learn more in 16 days than in one. When Aga himself trained the members of his Crop Growers Association in Malolos, Bulacan, he also used the farmers’ field school method of season-long training.

But I want to emphasize that for a farmer who is determined to learn, a one-day session is enough. In fact, the primer should be enough. We have farmers who simply wrote us to send them our free primer, and they learned SRI this way, supplemented with occasional text messages when they had questions that needed quick answers.

The Department of Agriculture has committed to convert 10% of the country’s nearly four million hectares of rice lands to organic/SRI production. At an average of one farmer per hectare, that’s around four hundred thousand farmers to train. When you are ready, after having accumulated some practical experience in using SRI, we will be asking you to train other farmers, as Aga has trained you, perhaps in this region, in your province or in your town.