The politics of information technology

Features – The Jakarta Post, 27 May 2002

by Yanuar Nugroho

Internet users throughout Indonesia must sense something was wrong between May 5 and May 10, when it took longer than usual to connect to the Internet.

Yes, the problem was not a common one. Domestic Internet traffic plunged, as it had to be re-routed via a foreign bandwidth. And yet, non-domestic traffic went on with no problem at all. Even sites owned by the central government (with the suffix go.id) were unable to be accessed. Why did this happen?

The Indonesian Internet Exchange (IIX) — managed by the Association of Indonesian Internet Service Providers (APJII), had been cut-off, and so all servers were shut down, causing routes of data within the domestic network to be halted and the routing process had to be performed through a foreign network thus slowing Internet access.

There was an angry response. APJII was blamed for taking illegal action that adversely affected many parties like Internet users and the Directorate General of Post and Telecommunications (Postel).

What APJII performed was, in fact, a boycott represented by the Internet community here in response to careless action carried out by the police and Postel who seized communication equipment operating on frequency 2.4 GHz. Wireless Internet connection technology is currently deployed on this bandwidth and is much cheaper compared to the conventional connection via phone lines.

In fact, the telecommunication body of the United Nations, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), has allocated the frequency 2.4 GHz to be unlicensed and free to be used by anyone.

By utilizing this allocation, alongside the developed wireless technology, low-cost Internet services to the public were made possible because Internet kiosks were no longer required to pay the ever-increasing day-to-day telephone rates.

In addition, remote areas have noticeably benefited from the expansion of the Internet. When Coordinator Minister for the Economy Dorodjatun Kuntjoro Jakti and Coordinating Minister for Peoples’ Welfare Jusuf Kalla visited remote village of Nglilo on the slopes of Mt. Merbabu, Central Java, on May 4, they saw for themselves how local peasants were familiarized with teleconferencing, carried out by wireless technology. It was ironic, therefore, that just one day before the ministers’ visit, the reckless seizures of the same equipment took place in Jakarta.

The whole trouble started when the monitoring body of Postel wrote a letter to order users of 2.4 GHz band to halt their activities until an official permit was released. Anxiety emerged among telecommunication and informatics (telematic) communities, which have been developing wireless technology, because the letter was interpreted as against the resolution made by the ITU. In fact, there had been efforts to request official permission to Postel, organized collectively by the wireless users gathered in Indo WLI. Nevertheless, up until recently, not a single permit has been issued thanks to the many unclear procedures, one of which is related to fees and other financial matters.

Therefore, once the unreasonable raids had been carried out by Jakarta’s administration, hand-in-hand with Jakarta Police, who seized wireless communication equipment, APJII — fully supported by its associations: the Association of Indonesian Telecommunication Kiosks (APWI), the Association of Indonesian Internet Kiosks (AWARI) and IndoWLI — reacted and staged a boycott, by shutting down all the machines serving the domestic routing for three straight days.

One might recall a similar controversial case related to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) some time ago, which still remains unsolved.

VoIP, which enables low-priced audio communication using Internet networks and protocols, was considered a threat instead of an opportunity. There had been much criticism in response to it. Yet, it
is not difficult to wonder whether the national body of telecommunications, Telkom, had its own interests. Why? Because VoIP would reduce the income of Telkom generated from international
dialing. Also, some politicians and political parties confused the VoIP issue with nationalism, which was just simply irrelevant.

In so confusing a situation, it was very unfortunate the State Minister of Communications and Information, representing the government as a public agency, had no clear stance at the time.

When the developers of VoIP technology were arrested and their equipment confiscated without permission, official authorization was given exclusively to certain business groups to purchase the
necessary permits. So, where does this problem originate?

It seems that any discourse on technology is a discourse on power as well. It was the English philosopher, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who introduced the well-known phrase “knowledge is power”. The knowledge inherited from information technology (IT) could be used to organize
the movement’s network for a new Indonesia with solidarity and a democratic ethos. But in the hands of uncontrolled groups blindly seeking profit — as we can often see in global economic practices —
IT can also be captured to control many aspects of our shared life. This depraved process was never its intention at all.

Foucault, following Bacon, in his Strategies of Power, L’Express (1988), emphasizes the development of all knowledge can never be detached from the exercise of power, for science itself has become a
powerful institution in itself.

Again, we are facing the ambivalent face of IT. It is not IT alone that has become the problem, but in what kind of power it can be made to exercise. It is therefore clear the importance in technology is
not only related to technical proficiency, but also to the sensitivity toward the exercise of power that brings enormous consequences to society. Therefore, how can the exercise of power be controlled?

The fact that official permission to utilize VoIP technology can be purchased or the reality that financial payment is involved in obtaining authorized use of 2.4 GHz band for wireless Internet use,
clearly shows there is another power, external to the legal and formal power belonging to the government as a public agency. Indeed, this suspicion is unavoidable: That there is a hidden agenda among the legal authorities to impose control over the telecommunications infrastructure and to withdraw it from collective ownership.

Yet, by following this line of logic the following statement will arise: If there is money available, surely the official license can be purchased, can’t it?

Thus, it has become clear the process of gaining authorized permission — to apply any kind of technology or to operate on a certain frequency — is not necessarily a democratic process. So, who
is more powerful? The authorities or those who have the money to buy the rules — including buying the process that makes the rules? This is a simple but very central question, yet we often forget it.

In such a process, a telematics community like APJII and its associations have lost out because they have to undergo the logic circle of capital and the production process, which relies solely on communication and information systems. Even so, the same consequences have also occurred within other professional groups. The fact the consequences are out of sight does not mean they are absent.

The case of VoIP and bandwidth 2.4 GHz reflects the critical moment of a tension that comprises three aspects. Firstly, it implies the need for the protection of the telematics communities as a whole.
Secondly, it involves the problem for those “information workers” engaged in Indonesia’s political economy. Lastly, within the equilibrium of the “three axes of power” consisting of market systems, public agencies and the civic community, the solution of this case will be an important indicator to highlight whether market systems have ruined or improved our shared life, or if it is possible
to improve conditions for at least one social group first: the telematics community.

This reveals a convoluted interest structured within a huge and sophisticated framework that echoes the issue of information technology. It seems difficult to stand the inconsiderate exercise of
state power that wiped out the capacity of the telematics community recently: from the complicated and deliberately unclear process of obtaining an official permit, the raids and seizure of equipment, to
the fact that the license for frequency usage and technology utilization can be bought.

The action of shutting down the IIX servers by APJII is a considerable step for democratization. It has been made apparent to all those who still believe democracy is only related to the control of state power democratization also involves the public accountability of the stakeholders of technology — including information technology.

When the technology developed for the advancement of communal life is being plundered by a collusion of interests between businesses and the state, democracy needs to stand strong and hold its ground. Our stance to fight for it will go down in history as an honorable act. (*)

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