Academia and digital activism: Ibase, APC, RNP and Tadao Takahashi

This piece was authored by Carlos Afonso and originally published in Portuguese by Nupef.

My proposal here is to present a concise historical overview of how a large-scale UN conference intersected with parallel developments in civil society networks in several countries. In Brazil in particular, it was interconnected with the emergence of the National Education and Research Network (RNP), which ended up contributing decisively to the activation of Brazil’s first permanent dedicated connections with the internet in the United States. Throughout the whole process, Tadao Takahashi's presence was crucial.

In June 2022, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (more commonly known as the Earth Summit or Rio Summit) and the 50th anniversary of the first big United Nations conference on the environment, held in Stockholm, at which 26 principles were recommended for the protection of (and interaction with) the environment. The 1972 Stockholm conference gathered together 113 countries, and one of its most significant impacts was the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi.

See the tribute to Tadao Takahashi at the 12th Brazilian Internet Forum here.

In early June 2022, the governments of Sweden and Kenya hosted an international conference in Stockholm that brought together global leaders and representatives from all stakeholder groups to evaluate the results of the 1972 conference and accelerate actions to make our planet healthier “for the prosperity of all”, as officially stated by the UN.

The 1992 Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, was the first of its kind to promote so-called multistakeholder participation in discussions, largely in response to the international demands of non-governmental sectors. It was also the first to promote the use of the internet for the dissemination, exchange and management of information in conference spaces.

Watch the session “30 years since the Earth Summit and the future of the internet in Brazil: A tribute to Tadao Takahashi” here.

In 1984, the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis (Ibase) began developing an initiative in Rio de Janeiro to promote the use of computer networks, in collaboration with entities from different countries and regions that shared similar objectives. This collaboration resulted in the establishment of Alternex on 18 July 1989, an information exchange service based on email and electronic conferences that had been used experimentally since 1987. Ibase’s work in this field was part of a diverse international mobilisation to facilitate information exchange among civil society entities that began in 1984 with the support of the Canadian government, alongside other collaborators – an initiative known as Interdoc.

In May 1990, the main organisations involved in this network, including Ibase, founded the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) in San Francisco. At the beginning of that decade, under Tadao Takahashi’s leadership, a process began in Brazil for the construction of what would become the largest education and research network in the region, the National Education and Research Network (RNP), with the important initial support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Watch the video tribute to Tadao presented at the 12th Brazilian Internet Forum here.

The United Nations was already familiar with APC since its establishment. In 1990, after the World Summit for Children in New York, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) created online discussion forums hosted by APC members, also used by the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (NGLS).

APC was created with the mission of finding tools to overcome geographical and political barriers between peoples – particularly in the early stages of the internet era. Cuba was the first success story stemming from APC’s international efforts to offer alternative access to ICTs and overcome the blockade imposed on Cuba by the United States after the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship.

In 1990, technicians from the Institute for Global Communications (IGC, based in the USA), NIRV Centre/Web (based in Canada) and GreenNet (based in the UK), all founding members of APC, were already seeking out equipment that could be taken to Cuba to enable the establishment of communications through international phone calls with the emerging APC network, as well as with the whole internet.

Due to the restrictive blockade legislation, this work had to be carried out furtively, and calls could not be made directly to the USA. That was how, on 1 May 1991, Ibase’s Alternex project launched an experimental service that offered direct access to Cuba through long distance dial-up calls, using state-of-the-art modem technology of the time (the incredible Telebits Trailblazers). The service enabled email exchange and discussion lists using the UUCP protocol (UNIX-to-UNIX Copy Program), with daily connections between Rio and Havana.

For the first time, a Cuban institution, the Institute for Documentation and Information on Science and Technology (IDICT), through its Centre for the Automatic Exchange of Information (CENIAI), could exchange messages with colleagues from different parts of the world, through APC and the internet. CENIAI had already been experimenting with X.25 networks since 1985, but in a rather precarious way and with international traffic limited to Eastern Europe through what was then the Soviet Union. The IDICT, like the IBICT in Brazil, was created with the support of UNDP.

The experiment demonstrated the possibility of using international phone calls for regular email exchange (a technology used by Alternex since its beginnings to establish information traffic with US networks at a time when permanent internet connections were still not available). Through the IDICT-CENIAI connection, dozens of other Cuban institutions started to exchange messages with the rest of the world.

Text transmission would reach a surprising rate of 600 characters per second between Rio and San Francisco and around 400 characters per second between Rio and Havana – an exceptional performance, especially if we consider that, at least until 1995, many Brazilian states were connected to the internet at 960 characters per second. However, the high cost of international calls, from Brazil as well as from Havana, made it impossible for this connection to continue.

APC started looking for alternatives, through London and Toronto, and starting in 1992, a regular UUCP service was established between the NIRV Centre and IDICT in Havana, with dialling from Canada, which reduced the cost of UUCP sessions by 80%. This gateway allowed for regular message transmission between Cuba and the internet. In March 1992, in an act of bravery, California-based IGC officially announced a regular message transmission service with Tinored, the nascent network of Cuban Youth Computer Clubs.

The Toronto-Havana UUCP connection, operated and subsidised by the NIRV Centre, maintained regular functioning until 1997 when Cuba finally managed to establish a direct and stable connection to the internet. The last direct APC service in Cuba closed in early 1997 and, at the end of February, the DNS service operated by NIRV for Cuba was passed on to CubaNIC, operated by CENIAI.

The work of Ibase and APC in the development of networks drew the attention of the 1992 Earth Summit’s secretary-general, who invited Ibase to participate in the establishment of the Brazilian component of the Global Electronic Network (GEN), which was being set up by the secretariat for the conference. This implied setting up, in all conference spaces, call centres with networked computers connected to the internet to enable at least the exchange of messages and files.

The conference took place in three spaces: the main conference in Riocentro, the NGO Forum in Hotel Glória/Aterro do Flamengo, and the Press Centre at the Telephone Museum, near the hotel. At the end of 1990, Ibase presented a first proposal for the establishment of an effective data communication system for the conference in Rio (known as ISP/Rio), with the technical support of other APC and RNP members.

The conference secretariat agreed with Tadao that it would be almost impossible to overcome the resistance put up by Embratel and other telecoms companies against these strangers coming in and installing networks in the conference areas, and above all, introducing internet protocols in the country. During these difficult negotiations, we distributed tasks: Tadao had “the lion’s share” of convincing governmental entities to not only give consent but to support the network project in the three spaces (the ISP/Rio), while the Ibase team – with the crucial support of Janos Pasztor, nuclear engineer and UN diplomat – was in charge of negotiating with the secretariat to introduce this component into the host country agreement between the UN and the Brazilian federal government.

We were thereby able to include in the host country agreement the requirement for direct links between the conference areas and the internet. This was made possible by the decisive and crucial support of RNP, through links with Alternex through UFRJ and Fapesp, as well as dedicated connections between the three spaces supplied by Rio de Janeiro Telecommunications (Telerj), which provided several phone lines for the project.

The success of ISP/Rio led APC to undertake similar projects for NGO forums at UN conferences in 1993 (World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna), 1994 (International Conference on Population and Development, Cairo) and September 1995 (World Conference on Women, Beijing), with the participation of the Ibase team. An important part of this team’s work throughout the years was to facilitate information exchange through APC’s electronic forums system, hosted by Alternex and other APC servers.

This successful project with the UN would not have been possible without the relentless, active and decisive presence of Tadao in all the stages of this adventure. In the struggle to gain the support of telecoms companies, Tadao met with executives from the former Telesp. After a comprehensive explanation presented by Tadao, a Telesp executive said to him: “I see. With this new network, you want to destroy our jobs!”

In addition to having been a leader in the design and establishment of (the first internet governance committee of its type in the world and, to some extent, still the only one) in 1995, and having fought for the establishment of RNP and many other initiatives related to network development in the country, Tadao was crucial in proposing a Brazilian chapter of the Internet Society.

In 1992 – the same year as the Earth Summit – the Internet Society was created as a result of the iNet meeting in Denmark. Five years later, at COMDEX 1997, Tadao, with the support of Marlon Borba and me, advocated for the creation of a Brazilian chapter of this international entity.

Yet, it was only in 2011 that we managed to officially establish Brazil's chapter, known as ISOC-BR, formalised as a non-profit organisation in 2012, when we had our first general assembly. Tadao and Marlon were largely responsible for writing the new entity’s first draft statutes and were the main negotiators for the endorsement of the chapter by the Internet Society.

It is worth mentioning that the Earth Summit project was also possible thanks to the strong and diversified support of the Canadian and Dutch governments (among others), together with international foundations, UN agencies and different companies that provided donations, such as Sun Microsystems. Dozens of computers, hubs, modems, printers and software were offered and received (despite adverse local laws and customs regulations) through the support of UNDP.

Tadao, dear comrade in many battles, you will be sorely missed!

Read the article published by Carlos Afonso after Tadao Takahashi’s passing here.

(*) Part of this text was presented by the author during the tribute to Tadao Takahashi at the 12th Brazilian Internet Forum on 3 June 2022.

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