Monday, October 01, 2012

Freedom in the world spawned by Alan Turing

The Geography of the Internet (from Wikipedia Commons)
This year the cyberworld marked the 100th birthday of Alan Turing, whose formalization of the algorithm for computable numbers made possible the machine that bears his name. This provided the basis for how computers work and eventually how the Internet operates.

This year too computer scientists marked the lamentable suicide of Turing after he was prosecuted as being gay, in a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence.

This post is not about gay rights but another right just as important, the right to free expression and speech in whatever the environment and locale. Freedom of expression is a universal human right as declared by the United Nations and is "beyond frontiers".

What then is this frontier? The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights was made in 1948 just when Turing's machines were just being applied to military and civilian use . Now the world is vastly different, with information being exchanged instantaneously and that participants in this exchange are no longer passive receivers but active creators of content. Active creators require liberty and thus from the onset, the Net is democratic.

The Internet is a technological application that has evolved from patently military applications, developed by the universities (as the first computers were made for) which means there should be central control to a network that is now devoid of central control. Whatever the Net's origins, its architects built in to its structure, a culture of open sources and transparency that is at the bedrock of the online community. The Internet has its space albeit a virtual one and thus has its own geography.

While the Net has no central authority, this doesn't mean it has no power or more accurately "no means of gaining political power" The principle of Universal Standing, which is driven by social consensus in the Net provides a check and balance to abuses and even crimes. Everyone in cyberspace has the right to be heard but none has the right to be always taken seriously. There are some people who haven't made the complete transition from the past to the future and consider the Net as a mere medium. The fact is clear.  The Net is not a medium, it is a society and  like any society, it will come to a stage of development and maturity which requires the exercise of  sovereignty. And this is quite different from the sovereignty lawyers think the State should exercise.

And here lies the conflict for the State may impose laws which try to "tame" cyberspace by creating "Great Firewalls" and  onerous laws on defamation and libel. The sovereignty of the online community clashes with the sovereignty of government. And since in democracies at least, the sovereignty of the State comes much from the same people who are sovereign in cyberspace. Thus the clash is inevitable.

The ensuring debate and resistance to the Philippine Cybercrime Prevention Act is a clear example of this clash. Unlike in other jurisdictions, the reaction of the Filipino cybersovereign community is immediate and ranges from the legal and acceptable (petitioning the High Court) to what most cybercitizens consider by consensus illegal and unacceptable (hacking). The range of reaction is due to a legitimate grievance, severer penalties for libel and provisions in statute that are violative of civil rights. The most noticed here is the application of an 82 year old libel law on a 21st century phenomenon. And BTW the traditional media is no sacred cow in this phenomenon and by the nature of cyberspace will not be held in reverence.

Of course there are concerns about anonymity that can be abused and taken advantage of criminal elements but cybersociety is cognizant that technological developments again accepted by consensus and use can easily unmask anonymity and this should have the warrants given by the courts.  The cyberworld believes in the supremacy of the law in regulating its affairs.

The Philippines is experiencing another of its culture wars. Many of those in power believe that cyberspace is like what Africa was to the Colonial Imperialists of the 19th Century, a place of lesser intelligence, in the darkest limbo and in need of the civilizing effects of law and order and democracy! Thomas Jefferson and Jose Rizal would have loved the Net if they were still with us.

Those in power do not realize that democracy has made the paradigm shift and as our Science, Technology and Society undergrad students learn "The Future always Wins!"

is coordinator of the Science and Society Program of the University of the Philippines

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