Brave new world

Bill and Doc V

INTERNET pioneers William Torres (left) and Rodolfo Villarica answer questions at the #20PHNet dinner at the Manila Peninsula Hotel. The event marking the 20th anniversary of the Philippine Internet was sponsored by
Smart Communications Inc.

IT was great to see Dr. Rodolfo Villarica, the Father of the Philippine Internet, after so many years.

Doc V, who was instrumental in building the infrastructure that connected us digitally to the rest of the world 20 years ago, spoke toward the end of a conference called “Your Internet, Your Data,” organized by the Internet Society (ISOC) and the Foundation of Media Alternatives (FMA).

The event at the Asian Institute of Management was one of several last week to mark the 20th anniversary of the Internet in the Philippines, and it seemed typical of Doc V to share the credit in his speech with about 80 other people and institutions.

It was also great to hear from Dr. William Torres, who had worked persistently to cajole the government into providing funding for the project that very few people understood at the time. In 1994, Bill joined Willy Gan to set up the country’s first commercial Internet service provider, Mosaic Communications.

Villarica spoke of the country’s first leased line connection to the Internet, a mere 64 kbps footpath on the information highway that cost $11,000 a month 20 years ago. Today, anyone can access the Internet at 100 Mbps for a few dollars.

But bandwidth isn’t the only thing that has changed. The half-day conference on “big data,” for example, emphasized how inexpensive storage is changing our lives, both for better and for worse.

“In the past, governments and corporations were careful about how much information they kept about you because storage was expensive,” said Winthrop Yu, who chairs the Philippine chapter of ISOC.

A simple USB flash drive that stored only 8 megabytes (MB) in the year 2000 can now store up to 2 terabytes— or more than 2 million MB.

“That’s the difference between me and a bacterium,” Yu said. “With this growth in capacity, everyone is encouraged to keep more data. In the past, corporations were more choosy about what data they kept, but today storage is cheap, so people store anything.”

On the positive side, this means more useful data is being organized, stored, and made available online so that we can make better decisions based on solid information.

An example of this is the MoneyPolitics.org website (moneypolitics.pcij.org) of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), which aims to be a citizen’s resource and research tool on elections, public funds and governance.

“There is a wealth of public records and documents that PCIJ has acquired in its 25-year existence, including statements of assets, liabilities and net worth of politicians, personal data sheets, and budget and project documents,” Karol Ilagan, research director at PCIJ, told conference participants. “We consolidated these documents and organized them into databases and uploaded them onto the website.”

To date, the website holds more than 6,000 unique public records, representing 57 gigabytes of data scanned and uploaded, and more are being added, Ilagan said.

Another example of the positive effects of big data is the government’s Open Data project, which has been encouraging agencies to post the data that they collect in machine-readable and open formats.

The four principles of the project, said Gabe Baleos, a consultant at the Department of Budget and Management, is to increase access to public-sector information, engage the public, encourage data-driven governance and create practical applications.

On the flip side of the coin, big data can impinge on our privacy rights, said Al Alegre of FMA.

In some cases, the invasion of privacy can be legitimized by law.

The most dramatic example of this comes from the revelations of Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the US National Security Agency (NSA) who revealed the existence of numerous global surveillance programs, many of them run by NSA with the cooperation of telecommunications companies and European governments.

In the era of big data, Alegre said, there is a need to review, reaffirm and recalibrate basic privacy principles.

Closer to home, Marlon Anthony Tonson of the Philippine Internet Freedom Alliance (PIFA) spoke of how the Cybercrime Protection Act of 2012, recently upheld by the Supreme Court despite 15 petitions filed against it, violated free speech and privacy rights.

He also said that a provision of the law that penalizes online libel more harshly than traditional forms of defamation violated the principle that same rights people have offline must also be promoted online.

Tonson added that because of the definition used in the law, any reporter who writes and files a potentially libellous story using a computer or a mobile phone can be found guilty of a cybercrime, and therefore face stiffer penalties and longer jail time.

None of the local Internet pioneers were likely to have foreseen these dangers 20 years ago.

Villarica, a chemical engineer, was driven by the prospect of gaining better access to scientific information and knowledge from other countries.

Speaking of a less complicated time, Villarica said: “On March 17, 1521, Magellan discovered the Philippines, and 473 years later, on March 29, 1994, the Philippines discovered the world…”

The brave new world we began to explore back then was certainly full of promise, but like any new discovery, it was also fraught with danger.

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