TOWARDS A POLITICAL ECONOMY OF INFORMATION
by Roberto Verzola
Reviewed by Arvin M. Montiveros
IV-18 BSE History
A few weeks ago, I heard of the news about the protests against certain proposed laws that the United States government is currently planning to pass. These are the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), which, according to the U.S. government, would help media firms fight online piracy and save millions of America's jobs. Some internet service providers particularly Wikipedia, Wired, Google, and Greenpeace also protested and warned that the proposed laws could kill the internet by allowing corporate targets to claim their intellectual property rights.
I have read in the internet that were also various protests held by internet users from different European countries against an agreement that their respective governments have signed, which is called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). This agreement was devised by the United States and Japan, and other major industries, that "seeks to create an unelected international body to impose intellectual property rights: most controversially by forcing internet service providers to police online content and impose criminal sanctions on copyright infringers". This also aims to "reinforce the international patent of medicines, and stop pharmaceutical firms from creating generic drugs after the expiration of the patent of the original medicine". According to the protesters, this agreement is "fundamentally flawed from a freedom of expression and information perspective", which if enacted will endanger the free flow of information on the internet.
Personally, these proposed laws and the agreement would have a significant effect on the way we use the internet, especially today that it has greatly expanded to serve millions of users and a multitude of purposes in all parts of the world. For years, internet has changed the way we do business, and the way we communicate. It has given an international, or perhaps, a "globalized" dimension of the world. The internet has become the universal source of information for millions of people, at home, at school, and at work. It is actually the most democratic of all mass media. With a very low investment, almost anybody can have access to the World Wide Web. But these facts might change because of the U.S. and other developed countries' imposition of intellectual property rights to the various information that we can get from the internet.
This issue gave me the idea to review the book of my classmate, entitled "Towards a Political Economy of Information" By Roberto Verzola. The book is divided into five parts and the following are the main ideas of each:
PART I: INFORMATION AND INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS (IPR)
In this part, information is described as a shared good in the developing countries, like the Philippines. It is being used in these countries as a tool for the acceleration of their development. On the other hand, developed countries, the United States for instance, look at information as a commodity for profit. They impose strict intellectual property rights to developing countries to expand and consolidate their ownership and control over information.
The U.S. tries to gain high moral ground in the conflict by accusing the developing countries of "piracy" as they copy and share the information that they get. But in the 19th century, the U.S. itself had also committed the same thing when they freely copied British books and publications and continues to remain guilty of the worse practice of "pirating" intellectuals, or the professionals, like Filipino doctors, instead of intellectual property.
This lead the author in the statement that, "When information acquisition is bad for the interest of the United States and other advanced countries but good fro us, it is called "piracy" and "free-riding", but when information acquisition is good for their interest and bad for us, it falls under labels like "free flow of information" and "common heritage of mankind".
PART II: ICTs AND THE INTERNET
This part criticizes internet as "only accessible at considerable cost, and to a small percent of the population". It sees internet as a democratizing factor and technology as class-neutral, which can be useful to bot the poor and the rich, only if it becomes affordable and universally accessible.
This also gives a deeper critique on various issues. First is the rapid growth of internet which results in vast expansion of markets for hardware, software connectivity, consultancy, and other ICT services. Another is that internet reinforces the automation mindset that replaces workers with machines which results in loss of jobs and job insecurity. This also criticizes internet as a poor learning environment because it does not encourage active reception and abstract thought, and it also has an addictive effect, especially to the youth. This results to another criticism that internet is becoming like television, which is referred to as an "idiot box". The only difference is that the internet is more interactive. This also has bad effects on the physical and mental health of individuals. It has also become a private space owned by rentiers, instead of being fully shared by the public. Finally, internet becomes the reason of the so-called digital divide, a divide between the reality and the promise of the digital technology.
PART III: GENETIC INFORMATION AND GENETIC ENGINEERING
Genetic engineering made it possible to manipulate information stored in chromosomes and genes of all living organisms. Though genetic engineering, genetic sequences can now be identified, decoded, reproduced, synthetized, patented, and commercialized. Genetic information is similar to other forms of information so it can be subjected to intellectual property rights. As a result of this, farmers and indigenous peoples may find themselves being accused of piracy as they engaged in their traditional practice of saving and sharing seeds. By privatizing these unique resources of communities, the biotech firms are themselves guilty of biopiracy or what is better called bio-privateering.
PART IV: MONOPOLISTIC INFORMATION ECONOMIES
Information economy is defined as an economy whose information sector has become more dominant than its agriculture and industrial sectors. This is also called as "post-industrial" economy, "service" economy, or "knowledge" economy. Corporate ownership and control of information infrastructures give the information economies a monopolistic nature through intellectual property rights. the growth of these information economies can be seen as the continuation of the wealth extraction and exploitation of the developing economies by the developed countries. This system reveals a new class, the cyberlord class, who are seen as the landlords of cyberspace who accumulate wealth by charging rents for the use of software and hardware resources under their control.
PART V: ALTERNATIVES: A NON-MONOPOLISTIC INFORMATION SECTOR
This part focuses on some alternative ways to stop information monopolies. These include free software, which gives the users freedom to use, share and modify software through a legal contract. Another is the use of low-power radio in rural areas, which is more accessible to the poor. Next is to stop the current corporate privatization of genetic information and expansion of genetic commons. The lowering of the cost of internet usage is also suggested. These, and some others, were included by the author in order to break the monopoly of information which hinders the development of developing countries, particularly the Philippines.
As the author stated in the book, "The information sector teaches us the value of cooperation and of sharing knowledge freely. On the other hand, because the intellectual creator feels a sense of total control and absolute power, it can lead to a very distorted sense of reality."
This statement proves that information is an essential part of nation building and development. Acquisition of information about a wide range of things, issues and concerns from the different fields and sectors of the society gives us the capability to think freely and do things that may contribute to national development. Developing countries are now doing steps to accelerate their development through the use of information but hindrances are coming their way which impede their quest to improve their life. And one of these hindrances is the policy that the United States is trying to impose to developing countries concerning the free access and use of information, the intellectual property rights (IPR).
According to the U.S. they are only imposing this policy to protect their intellectual property and to fight piracy being done by the developing countries. But implicitly, the U.S. is only doing this so that developing countries would have greater dependence on the information that the "sell" in order to make more profit. The U.S. also wants to hinder the fast development of these countries to prevent the threat of competition which would effect the gains of their economy. They are accusing us of piracy but that was the same thing that they did in the past. They are making policies and decisions to make us believe that we would all benefit from those, but what they are really thinking is just for their own benefit.
It also becomes clear that despite what the U.S. is doing, we are still not making any move to fight for our right to get a fair share of what information can bring. What we should do is to form a strong popular movement in order to counterbalance U.S. threats and pressures against our government.
Sharing and copying information cannot be regarded purely as "stealing" or "piracy", unlike what the U.S. is asserting. This just shows that we know the value of cooperation and sharing of knowledge as mentioned earlier. What we get is not their loss, and they should take that as a compliment because they are able to help us to achieve development by using what they have created. It is a way in which we help each other and empower each one of us so that we may take part in our journey to development.
It is evident that the author of the book has a Marxist perspective for his emphasis is on the conflict between the developed and developing countries concerning information and information technology. His proposed alternatives can also be an indication of his perspective because it included Socialism, Fundamentalism and Green alternatives, all of which intended to serve as an alternative to both the "free-market" policies and the monopolies of capitalist globalization. Though he presented these three alternatives, what he favored the most is the Green alternatives, which shows that he is not only concerned about the elimination of capitalism and other class conflicts brought about by the developments in information and technology, but also with the state of the environment and all the others which has something to do with it.