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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Towards a Political Economy of Information by Robert Verzola (review)

Submitted by: Jennifer P. Carlos  IV-18 BSE History

As I am researching the author’s profile of the book that I am reviewing- Towards a Political Economy of Information, I became interested more to read his works because Mr. Robert Verzola has been awarded “father of Philippine email  because he ran an email service for NGOs for almost a decade (1992-2000).Educated and trained as an engineer, he has worked closely with social movements and civil society organizations on issues ranging from nuclear power, intellectual property rights, information technology, genetic engineering, environmental issues, farming methods, and election automation. Now he actively participates in the international Copy South Research Group, and is currently writing a book on the political economy of abundance.

How he was encourage writing the book? Combining his technical background and social commitment, he has regularly served as technical resource person for Philippine as well as Southeast Asian NGOs. As a product of his decades of work on ICTs and their social impact, his book 'Towards a Political Economy of Information' was published in 2004.

In the first few paragraphs of a chapter in his book, Towards a Political Economy of Information he said “We are all familiar with the typical story of an isolated village at the edge of the forest. Some villagers have to go to town to buy a few necessities, and maybe to stock the village store. Others need to go to sell some products for cash. Villagers start to feel that the foot path to town is insufficient for their needs. Village activists may even pursue the issue and organize the people to demand a better road. Eventually, public opinion is swayed, and a petition is submitted. The government, the villagers are pleasantly surprised, is amenable to the idea. Road-building eventually starts.

As completion date nears, the village organizes a welcome party for the first vehicle that is coming in. A few days later, the village wakes up to the rumble of engines and smell of diesel exhaust. The vehicles have come. And they are logging trucks, carrying men with chain saws.
Reading the statement of the author above, it is evident that there are issues and problems concerning the necessities of the village people and actions for development could be achieved in the cooperation of the authority and the citizens.

 Let us now discover the content of the written work of Mr. Verzola.  The book was composed of 5 parts. It evolves around information and property rights, ICTs and Internet, genetic information and genetic engineering, monopolistic information economies and alternatives: non- monopolistic information. In every part of the book there are certain issues and the author gives his overview and reactions.

Part I: Information and intellectual property rights
Information is a distinct commodity already apparent in books, tapes and computer which became a mass consumer product. Reading further, the book focuses on conflicting attitudes towards information: as a good which in developing world one naturally shares with others and as a commodity which in developed world one stake an exclusive ownership claim for profitmaking.  The issue here is the U.S. insists that developing countries are violating their copyrights and this cannot go on. The government has agreed to phase out the book reprinting law. This means that the book reprints which have kept textbooks cost relatively low will soon be banned, forcing as back to an era of expensive imported textbooks. The conflict manifests as “offensive “by the US and other information economies to impose on developing countries a strict regime of intellectual property rights (IPR) enforcement. Through this regime, they expand and consolidate their ownership and control over information. In this situation, developing countries need to follow the rules given by the developed countries in using their commodities (information).

Part II: ICTs and the Internet
Technology is great but it is only accessible at considerable cost. Internet towards with new information and communication technologies are converging today-essentially as democratizing factor. But issues arise regarding ICTs and Internet. Internet creates its own hierarchy of access that retains and may even worsen the gap between the rich and poor. The internet reinforces the automation mindset that replaces workers with machines. In this situation ICT becomes a status and job destroyer. It is obvious nowadays, that machines and computers are taking over work previously done by human beings. The matter of balance is essential to manipulate the human and technology resources. Human should be the one to use technology not the technology that will control the mind of human.

Part III: Genetic Information and Genetic Engineering
To give you a background about GI and GE, let us have these definitions.
 Genetic information includes information about an individual’s genetic tests and the genetic tests of an individual’s family members, as well as information about the manifestation of a disease or disorder in an individual’s family members.
Genetic engineering is the alteration of genetic code by artificial means, and is therefore different from traditional selective breeding. It makes the whole digital revolution look nothing.  Digital technology changes what we do.  Genetic engineering has the power to change who we are.
In the book the issue is a about piracy. An alarming development in the intellectual property laws of the Western countries is the increasing number of patent on life forms. And what is patent? A paten is a form of intellectual property. It consists of a set of exclusive rights granted by a sovereign state to an inventor or their assignee for a limited period of time in exchange for the public disclosure of an invention. Many plant varieties were developed from natural varieties freely taken from farming areas all over the world. To manipulate, they change parts of the plants’ genetic make-up, claim ownership over these, and then sell them back to us at much higher prices.
Genetic engineering also contaminates the natural world with runaway engineered mutants that may threaten our health and environment. The problem is an even patent on human genetic material is spreading specially in the US. This is why the patenting of life forms must be opposed completely: it gives multinationals monopoly over genetic resources and erodes biodiversity.

Part IV: Monopolistic Information of Economies
The monopolistic nature of current information economies hinges on corporate ownership and control of information infrastructures and monopolistic ownership of information through property rights. The issue revolves around cyber lords, and who are they? Cyber lords control the software including the owners of software companies, database companies, music, video and film companies, publishers, genetic engineering firms, pharmaceutical and seed firms, and similar companies who earn most of their income from IPR rents. Cyber lords, therefore, have no choice but to globalize their operations as well, and to follow where their information products go. They push the globalization process incessantly to ensure that every country, every nook and corner of the globe, is within the reach of their mechanisms for rent extraction.
Strategies against cyber lords- we must oppose privatization and fight for public domain information content, tools, facilities and infrastructure. A strong campaign must be mounted against patenting of life forms. We should propose non-monopolistic rewards for intellectual activity and the social sharing of non-material goods. We should advocate various forms of community/ public control or ownership over backbone information facilities and infrastructure to minimize private rent seeking through corporate control over such commonly used facilities.

Part V: Alternatives: A non-monopolistic sector
Information monopolies work against the nature of information that is why alternative approaches exist. Countries which want to take advantage of the benefits of the internet may do so at a much lower cost through appropriate technologies, free/open software, genuine compulsory licensing, public access stations and public/community ownership of the information infrastructure.

Now that we are in the digital era, information is easily copied and perfectly reproduces exact copy. Even if there are certain securities, people tend to experiment and find the possible way to discover it. Authorities set rules and implemented laws in protecting intellectual property rights. I agreed on what scientist said that information is that which resolves or reduces uncertainty. What is interesting is that since information is non-material it is very easy to reproduce.
The good thing about information economy is it can produce with a minimum of input in labor ad raw materials. This means that information economies are in position to realize huge margins of profits when trading with other economies, therefore, they are also in position to extract huge amounts of wealth from trading partners. But the weakness of information goods, many people simply copy them.
Developing such a political economy of information that has become an immediate necessity, given the rapidity with which the information sector has established its dominance, there should be an analysis of the basic contradiction in an information economy and its various expressions (agriculture & industry). Identification of the main forces, the reliable allies, the middle forces and opponents of change are important for the discovery of new property relation that is more consistent with the nature of passing information goods. One of the key concepts in ecology is the idea of harmony. In comparison with the nature of information, we must learn to search for harmony and to work for it because the dynamic balance that it represents gives peace to our lives.

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