News Commentary

Commentary: Digitalization and mitigating digital risks in time of COVID-19

Sherwin Ona - Philstar.com
Commentary: Digitalization and mitigating digital risks in time of COVID-19
WI-FI ON EDSA: A phone shows free wi-fi connection on EDSA as the Department of Information and Communications Technology tests the service for its launch today. PLDT and Globe Telecom have partnered with the DICT to provide free high-speed internet on EDSA.
The STAR/Michael Varcas, File photo

In the last eight months, we have witnessed how the COVID-19 pandemic crippled the Philippine economy and altered our way of life. In fact, the International Monetary Fund estimates that in 2020, the country’s GDP will shrink by 8.3%, while the unemployment rate will be at 10.4%, more than double the 2019 figure. 

However, this is not a doom and gloom situation. The pandemic has pushed the Philippines towards the path of digitalization. Currently, we are seeing the proliferation of e-commerce and e-banking services like e-payment and internet shopping. Filipinos are beginning to embrace work from home schemes, distance learning as well as new online hobbies as part of the new normal. 

With these unprecedented changes, one can venture to ask, “Are we seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of opportunities related to digitalization?” 

Of course, believers and advocates of digitalization will give an affirmative answer to this question. The potentials of new technologies are hard to ignore. 

For instance, the ability to use analytics and artificial intelligence to harness data, widely regarded as the world’s new oil, is expected to transform existing business models. Also, the ubiquity of cloud-based services can provide businesses with cost effective solutions and enhance organizational as well as individual productivity. 

However, the Philippines’ digitalization journey has been an uphill climb. In a 2020 report on the country’s digital economy, the World Bank cited a plethora of challenges besetting the country. 

The report states that the country still has an analog economy with 60% of its households unable to access the internet. It also mentioned the country’s low broadband penetration, slow mobile data speeds, and inadequate e-government services, 

Recent developments show, nevertheless, that the lives of Filipinos are becoming increasingly digitized. Filipinos are infamous for spending more time online each day than any other country, according to WeAreSocial. 

Furthermore, according to IMD World Digital Competitiveness Ranking 2020, the Philippines ranked top 10 globally in terms of telco investments. This, along with the improving coverage of 4G availability, which now stands at 83.3% according to OpenSignal, Fixed Broadband speeds improving to 25.34 Mbps according to Ookla, means more and more Filipinos will spend online.

The country’s digitization, however, is complicated by the rise in cybercrimes such as phishing, identity theft and internet scams. In fact, the Department of Justice reports a 260% increase in cybercrimes during the height of the pandemic. 

On the issue of digital piracy, a YouGov 2020 survey revealed that the Philippines has one of the highest rates in Southeast Asia, resulting in an estimated revenue loss of US$120 million. Consequently, this will affect the country’s creative industry through the loss of jobs and intellectual property as well as increasing the risk of malware infections.

At this point, it is noteworthy to ask, “Are we staring at the tip of a spear? Are we facing a tsunami of digital risks that can exacerbate digital divides?” 

Traditionally, when confronted by novel threats, states usually invoke its national security card. With it comes a menu of laws, policies and programs that are intended to present a strong response and promote stability. 

In terms of digital threats, the possibility of widespread denial of services, initiates a process where security and law enforcement agencies step in to confront a perceived existential threat. Looking back at the ferocity of the alleged state-sponsored cyberattacks against Estonia (2007) and Georgia (2008), one can easily understand why this is so. 

However, it can be argued that although a national security-oriented response is important, it is still inadequate. This approach usually has a state-centric nature, highlighting the state’s central role in mitigating cyber-digital risks. 

In the Philippines, this strategy underscores the importance of developing the government’s capacity to address these concerns. Plagued with organizational limitations and trust issues, it is not possible for the government to do this alone. It needs to be transparent as well as encourage more participation from the private sector and civil society to develop a whole of society response.  

Another aspect of digital risks that is not often discussed is the possibility that these new technologies can become the seeds for widespread marginalization and violation of rights. For instance, inadequate access to the internet due to low broadband penetration can further exacerbate existing societal divides and possibly create a significant cohort of disenfranchised citizens. 

Furthermore, the occurrence of cyber bullying, trolling and unlawful surveillance are examples of digital risks that strikes at the core of our human rights. Rights such as freedom of expression, our desire to be free from violence, and our privacy are being threatened.  Fake news is becoming increasingly prevalent, causing misinformation and impairs decision making. These concerns reveal the human security side of digital risks.

Addressing the human security facet of cyber-digital threats require the creation of a rights-based and development-oriented regime that is problem-centric and citizen-oriented. This approach further highlights the importance of examining the needs of organizations and communities.

Cybersecurity and digital risks will continue to evolve. For the Philippines, focusing primarily on its national security-law enforcement side will be inadequate and places an enormous burden on the state. Therefore, it is important to examine its human security facet to enable a whole of society response to the challenges of digitalization. 

Sherwin Ona is a non-resident fellow of think tank Stratbase ADR Institute. He is also an associate professor and chairperson of the Political Science Department of De La Salle University.

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