(Part 2) Low-Cost Strategies for ICT Deployment in Developing Countries

  • To: s-asia-it at apnic dot net
  • Subject: (Part 2) Low-Cost Strategies for ICT Deployment in Developing Countries
  • From: "Irfan Khan" <KhanIA@super.net.pk>
  • Date: Sun, 17 Oct 1999 21:12:05 +0500
  • Sender: owner-s-asia-it@apnic.net
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      (continued from part 1 of this message)
      
      Working in harmony with the nature of information
      
      One of the key concepts in ecology, is the idea of harmony. We must
      learn to search for harmony and to work for it, because the dynamic
      balance that it represents gives peace to our lives. Thus, today, it
      is now commonly accepted that we must work in harmony with nature
      instead of in opposition to it. For to conquer nature and to defeat it
      is, in truth, a self-defeating goal, because we are part of nature.
      
      Information has its own nature. It is non-material; basically a
      numeric measure of resolving uncertainty. By its nature, information
      is easy to duplicate at little cost, unlike material goods which
      require significant amounts of matter and energy to go into every
      unit. As the economist would say, the marginal cost of reproducing
      information approaches zero. It is this nature of information which
      determines its social character, why people tend to copy it, to share
      it, to exchange it. As the mathematician would say, the acquisition of
      information is not a zero-sum game, it is a positive sum-game. To use
      a popular term today, sharing information goods like software is a
      "win-win" situation, because you do not lose what you give away.
      
      Free software like Linux/GNU works in harmony with the nature of
      information, because it recognizes and takes advantage of its social
      nature. Intellectual property rights (IPR) like software copyrights,
      on the other hand, work against the nature of information because they
      create statutory monopolies that artifically create information
      scarcity, so that the privileged monopolists can dictate their price
      of a good that, by nature, is easily available to all once created.
      
      That is why, despite that power of Bill Gates and his fellow
      cyberlords, they will never be able to completely implement their
      so-called property rights over information, because they work against
      the very nature of information. The social nature of information will
      continually assert itself and people will continue to copy and to
      share whatever information they find useful and worth sharing. On the
      other hand, free software and its copying license, the GPL, work in
      perfect harmony with the nature of information. In the future, IPR
      will become obsolete and GPL and similar practices consistent with
      information's social nature will become the general rule.
      
      When we work in harmony with the nature of information, it becomes
      easier to improve, and its quality, reliability and usefulness rised
      rapidly This is probably why Linux is superior to Microsoft Windows in
      many respects. It can do many tasks (multitasking) and service many
      users (multiuser) at the same time. It has all the facilities for
      communicating with other computers (networking): it can be used as a
      workstation, as a server, or both; e-mail is built-in; and it is
      Internet-ready. Linux can also be configured with a graphical user
      interface. Unlike Windows which inexplicably stops every now and then
      (sometimes taking your work file with it), Linux machines run
      twenty-four hours a day for months with no problem. Ask any local
      Internet service provider (ISP): many use Linux, hardly any uses
      Windows NT.
      
      Linux, furthermore, is Unix-compatible, a Unix look-alike. Who hasn't
      heard of Unix? It is THE operating system, the one which runs on
      almost every computer from lowly 386s to supercomputing Crays. Nearly
      all computer science departments in every self-respecting university
      in the world use Unix as their platform for teaching and research. The
      latest developments in computer science often make their appearance on
      Unix first, before trickling down later to other operating systems
      like Microsoft Windows or the Mac OS.
      
      Social movements and non-government organizations (NGOs) should look
      beyond the cost effectiveness of Linux, into its philosophy of freedom
      in software. It is a philosophy consistent with the advocacies of
      cause-oriented groups, voluntary associations and alternative
      movements -- a philosophy of pooling resources, sharing, and working
      in harmony with nature and with information.
      
      
      Genuine compulsory licensing (GCL)
      
      If the General Public License (GPL) ensures public access to free/open
      software, genuine compulsory licensing (GCL) provides an
      internationally-recognized mechanism for public access to commercial
      software and other copyrighted or patented goods.
      
      GCL works as follows: Somebody who wants to use/commercialize patented
      or copyrighted material approaches NOT the patent or copyright holder,
      but the government for a license to do so. The government grants the
      license, whether the original patent or copyright holder agrees or
      not, but compels the local licensee to pay the patent/copyright holder
      a royalty rate that is fixed by law. Many countries in the world have
      used and continue to use compulsory licensing for important products
      like pharmaceuticals and books, in order to bring down their prices
      and make them more affordable to ordinary citizens.
      
      GCL would legalize the operations of computer shops which offer
      copying of commercial software as a service to the public, but would
      require these shops to pay a reasonable royalty -- usually between 5
      and 10 percent of the local price of copied item -- to the original
      copyright owners. It would allow the government television channel,
      for instance, to show on television the Discovery Series, while paying
      a reasonable royalty set by law.
      
      Genuine compulsory licensing (also called mandatory licensing in some
      countries) is a demand of many countries who want to access
      technologies but cannot afford the price set by patent/copyright
      holders. While this internationally-recognized mechanism was meant for
      the benefit of poorer countries, even the U.S. and many European
      countries use it.
      
      In the article "Cyberlords: the rentier class of the information
      sector", I explained why GCL is an important demand which not only
      helps poor countries to acquire access to expensive technologies on
      their own terms, but which also splits the cyberlord class because
      small cyberlords welcome GCL while big cyberlords oppose it.
      
      When referring to compulsory licensing, it is important to emphasize
      that it must be genuine, because the GATT/WTO agreement pays lip
      service to compulsory licensing but defines it in a way that negates
      its essential purpose by giving back to cyberlords the power to set
      the terms of the license.
      
      
      What about hardware?
      
      Even free software like Linux/GNU are expensive in terms of the
      hardware necessary to run them and the time needed to learn them, to
      master them, and to modify them for our particular requirements. These
      additional investments have to be justified vis-a-vis the competing
      requirements of our impoverished people, only a small minority of
      which have access to potable water, to medical care or to a telephone.
      
      Unlike information goods, hardware is material. Therefore, the cost of
      replicating hardware and building infrastructure cannot take advantage
      of the near-zero marginal cost that information goods enjoy. Harware
      is therefore expensive.
      
      To look at the options open to a developing country which wants to
      provide access to ICTs to its citizens despite the huge capital
      requirements for doing so, it is useful to go back to the information
      superhighway analogy. A government which wants to provide universal
      access to transportation services will have the following approaches
      available:
      
         * one family / one car
         * walkways, bicycles
         * efficient public transport
      
      Most U.S. cities have taken the first approach. This is unfortunately
      the default approach taken by many developing countries, which mistake
      a car-oriented society as a mark of progress. This misguided policy is
      further encouraged by industrial economies which export cars and other
      transport equipment to developing countries. A common way of doing so
      is by granting loans to cash-strapped governments to enable them to
      engage in road-building sprees so that people will buy more cars. We
      know today that this approach is unsustainable even for rich countries
      which may be able to afford them. There will certainly be not enough
      resources available to provide the metal as well as the fuel necessary
      to provide one car for every Indian or Chinese family. Even if there
      were, our atmosphere will never be able to accomodate the highly
      pollutive as well as greenhouse gases that will be emitted as a result
      of such an approach.
      
      Despite this, many developing countries continue to consider
      increasing car ownership as an indicator of national progress.
      
      The second approach would emphasize non-motorized transport systems
      like covered walkways and bike paths. To a poor country, bicycle
      manufacturing is much more technologically accessible than car
      manufacturing. It will also require much less in terms of a road
      network and fuel. This is, recalling Schumacher, appropriate
      technology.
      
      The third approach is one that emphasizes public access to a
      commonly-owned resource that is too expensive to be acquired on an
      individual basis. It nicely complements the second approach.
      
      While the three approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive, it
      often happens that one option precludes the other. In Metro Manila,
      for instance, government transport policies were heavily biased in
      favor of private cars, resulting in a rapid increase in private car
      ownership in the region. As the traffic situation deteriorated and
      road congestion worsened, it became very difficult to expand public
      transport services as the politically powerful car lobby insisted on
      retaining the private car biases in the government's transport
      policies. Therefore, instead of improving the bus and jeepney system,
      the government took the much more expensive option of building
      overhead rail systems, which will displace buses and jeepneys and free
      more roads for even more private cars.
      
      Had the government paid early attention to the development of
      alternative transport systems like walkways, bike paths and an
      efficient public bus system, middle class families would not have
      found the private car a necessity for urban living, and neither would
      it have been necessary to build very expensive overhead rail-based
      systems. The experience of Curitiba in Brazil is a good example of
      this enlightened approach.
      
      Unfortunately, government are often drawn away from this enlightened
      approach by the attractive loans dangled before them by countries who
      want them to build more roads instead so that they can buy more cars.
      
      The clear lesson from this experience is that an early enlightened
      approach can make it much easier for a government to provide universal
      public access at a much lower cost, than if market forces were allowed
      to rule and set the direction of development of services. Letting the
      "free market" direct the deployment of infrastructure would lock a
      country into very expensive options which are most beneficial only for
      the suppliers of the technology.
      
      Let us now pose the question: what would be the analogue in the
      information sector of walkways, bike paths, and an efficient public
      transport system, the approach that makes much more sense,
      particularly to developing countries, that the one-family, one-car
      approach?
      
      
      The hardware solution: public facilities / universal access
      
      Publicly-owned, publicly-accessible facilities represent this strategy
      of resource-pooling and resource-sharing, a proven strategy among poor
      countries. This approach contrasts sharply with what seems today to be
      the dominant idea for introducing ICTs: "a computer on every desktop,"
      recalling the "one family, one car" approach in the transportation
      sector.
      
      These two contrasting approaches are as follows:
      
           - public libraries vs. a library in every home
           - public viewing centers vs. a television in every home
           - public calling stations vs. a telephone in every home
           - the public access terminals vs. a computer on every desktop
      
      The first represents a community-oriented approach that emphasizes
      sharing and minimizes cost; the second represents an individualistic
      approach that creates a huge demand for suppliers.
      
      It is clear what strategy the ICT industry wants governments to take.
      It is also clear what strategy will be able to deliver universal
      access at a cost which cash-strapped governments can afford.
      
      Unfortunately, many governments do not give this issue much thought,
      and accept without question the approach which the ICT industry is
      taking. The Philippine government, for instance, had in 1998 a project
      to install a public calling station in every one of the 1,500
      municipalities of the country. The budget for the project was
      drastically reduced; instead the government is relying on private
      telcos to install telephones, which they are doing, but mostly in
      urban centers, and the target is to install one in every home.
      
      
      Public ownership of the infrastructure
      
      Because the ICT infrastructure is very expensive, the effort to set it
      up presents an opportunity for collective pooling of resources by an
      entire community. Once the infrastructure is set up, it can then offer
      universal access, charging only enough to maintain good quality
      service and provide for future requirements. This is the rationale for
      public ownership of natural monopolies and large infrastructures.
      
      To open such public works to private ownership open the door to
      rent-seeking with no time bound, extracts additional cost from users
      to support the profit-driven rent-seekers who will charge as much as
      the market will bear, and contributes to the further concentration of
      wealth in the hands of the rich. Because of the low marginal costs of
      moving and reproducing information goods, the information sector
      attracts more than its usual share of rent-seekers. A conscious effort
      by the government to encourage public or community ownership of ICT
      infrastructures can avoid this problem.
      
      
      Conclusion: The Philippine Greens' Programme for the Information
      Sector
      
      Within the Philippine Greens, we have developed a critical analysis of
      the emerging global information economy and have formulated what we
      believe is an appropriate set of responses to the entry into our
      country of the Internet and various other information and
      communications technologies (ICTs). This set of responses contains
      many of the elements discussed above, as well as other policies which,
      we hope, represent a well-rounded policy framework for the information
      sector.
      
      These information policies include:
      
      1. The right to know. It is the government's duty to inform its
      citizens about matters that directly affect them, their families or
      their communities. Citizens have the right to access these
      information. Neither the State nor private corporations may use
      "national security", "confidentiality of commercial transactions", or
      "trade secret" as reasons to curtail this right.
      
      2. The right to privacy. The government must not probe the private
      life of its citizens. Citizens have the right to access information
      about themselves which have been collected by government agencies. The
      government must not centralize these separate databases by building a
      central database or by adopting a unified access key to the separate
      databases. Nobody should be forced against their will to reveal any
      information they do not want to make public.
      
      3. No patenting of life. The following, whether or not modified by
      human intervention, may not be patented: life forms, biological and
      microbiological materials, biological and microbiological processes,
      genetic information.
      
      4. The moral rights of intellectuals. Those who actually create an
      intellectual work or originate an idea have the right to be recognized
      that they did so. Nobody may claim authorship of works or ideas they
      did not originate. No one can be forced to release or modify a work or
      idea if he or she is not willing to do so. These and other moral
      rights of intellectuals will be respected and protected.
      
      5. The freedom to share. The freedom to share and exchange information
      and knowledge must be recognized and protected. This freedom must take
      precedence over information monopolies such as intellectual property
      rights (IPR) that the State grants to intellectuals.
      
      6. Universal access. The government will facilitate universal access
      by its citizens to the world's storehouse of knowledge. Every
      community needs access to books, cassettes, videos, tapes, radio and
      TV programs, software, etc. The government will set up a wide range of
      training and educational facilities to enable community members to
      continually expand their know-how and knowledge.
      
      7. Compulsory licensing. Universal access to information content is
      best achieved through compulsory licensing. Under this
      internationally-practiced mechanism, the government itself licenses
      others to copy patented or copyrighted material for sale to the
      public, but compels the licensees to pay the patent or copyright
      holder a government- set royalty fee. This mechanism is a transition
      step towards non-monopolistic payments for intellectual activity.
      
      8. Public stations. Universal access to information infrastructure is
      best achieved through public access stations, charging subsidized
      rates. These can include well-stocked public libraries; public
      telephone booths; community facilities for listening to or viewing
      training videos, documentaries, and the classics; public facilities
      for telegraph and electronic mail; educational radio and TV programs;
      and public stations for accessing computer networks.
      
      9. The best lessons of our era. While all knowledge and culture should
      be preserved and stored for posterity, we also need to distil the best
      lessons of our era, to be taught -- not sold -- to the next
      generations. There should be a socially- guided, diversity-conscious
      selection, undertaken with the greatest sensitivity and wisdom. It is
      not something that can be left to a profit-oriented education system,
      to circulation- or ratings-driven media, or to consumption-pushing
      advertising.
      
      The information economy is growing at a phenomenal rate, often
      independently of the capacity of communities to absorb it, or of
      governments to control it. This growth is driven mostly by global
      forces external to our own society but very much present within it.
      
      Left by themselves, these global forces will simply treat our country
      and our communities as fodder for their relentless drive in search of
      profit and growth. On the other hand, we want the balanced development
      and interaction of our agricultural, industrial and information
      sectors in a way that enhances the overall quality of life in our
      communities. These are often orthogonal, if not opposite directions.
      
      To be able to attain that dynamic balance between these sectors so
      that they enhance each other and contribute to the overall health and
      sustainability of our communities -- this is the challenge of the
      information sector.
      
      
      Roberto Verzola
      
      
      
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