Roberto Verzola, PH Internet pioneer and activist, dies at 67

Local Internet pioneer Roberto S. Verzola, who is also a renewable energy advocate, social activist, author, and a torture victim during the Marcos dictatorship, passed away on Wednesday evening, May 6, his family said in a private message. He was 67. 

Roberto S. Verzola (Photo by Bernard Testa)

Verzola, an electronics and communications engineering graduate of the University of the Philippines, seized the potential of information technology, primarily email, and used it for the benefit of the public and progressive Filipino advocacy groups whose values he shared.

In 1986, months after the Marcos regime was deposed, Verzola established the Andromeda Bulletin Board System (BBS) in the Senate (then located in Manila) and the House of Representatives in Quezon City, a report from BusinessWorld said. This allowed users to send and receive messages from one another on an online bulletin board through workstations installed in both buildings.

Four years later, the self-effacing Verzola transformed that same platform into an email server called the Email Center, which would primarily cater to non-government organizations.

Verzola’s service helped NGOs link up with their global network of supporters and funders around the time phones — both fixed line and mobile — remained scarce and electronic mail was a privilege and was considered something of a novelty in the country.

Despite helping introduce his fellow activists to the wonders — and the possibilities — of the Internet, Verzola shuttered the whole enterprise in 2000. An upgrade would have prompted him to charge higher fees for his services, he said.

“The pressure to provide full Internet access was pushing me towards commercial business operation,” Verzola said in his first book, “Towards a Political Economy of Information”, published in 2004 by the Foundation for Nationalist Studies. “I decided to remain a social activist.”

The decision was hardly surprising. After all, before, during, and after that time, the engineer fondly known as “Obet” already knew his role and his place in Philippine society.

In 1990, sixteen years after he was detained and tortured by the military, Verzola spoke at the commencement rites of the Philippine Science High School (PSHS), also known as “Pisay”, in Quezon City. PSHS was where he and a whole slew of talented and gifted young Filipino scholars graduated from.

In his speech, Verzola said that a “Pisay” education opened up opportunities for him, as if a red carpet was laid out in front of him, leading to the brightest of futures.

However, Verzola said that that red carpet was actually composed of the backs of poor, working Filipinos, who had made his education possible, said human rights lawyer Ibarra M. Gutierrez III, who graduated from PSHS in 1990 and was impressed by Verzola’s remarks.

“I’ve quoted him in every graduation speech I’ve been asked to give,” said Gutierrez, a former party-list legislator and now spokesperson for Vice-President Leni G. Robredo.

Verzola’s speech in 1990, and arguably all his achievements, only underscored Obet’s conviction: that one’s privilege — social, intellectual, and technological — was best used to bring about a cleaner, more progressive, and more equitable world.

Around that time, Verzola sold a personal computer on an installment basis to Dominick Danao, the founder and chief product officer of xpensio, which helps companies manage their expenses on a mobile wallet app. 

“Years after that, I sold my free email company,” Danao said, referring to his startup PinoyMail.com, which was bought by Smart Communications and PayMaya founder Orlando “Doy” Vea. “I owe him a huge debt of gratitude.”

In the mid-1990s, as the Philippines was struggling to find its place in the global village, Verzola had already offered an alternative view of how things — such as the Internet — could become.

“The Internet was a tool for education, just like what television’s potential was in the beginning,” people who remember him recalled Verzola as saying. “But we know what happened to television.”

To many, that view, as well as his several other beliefs, was quixotic, a pipe dream. Nonetheless, he was never afraid to air them in the columns he submitted to People’s Journal, an English language tabloid newspaper, in the early 2000s.

Several pieces — which were collected in his first book — argued against copyright, since developed countries reproduced books illegally when they were still underdeveloped, he said. Another column supported the open source software movement, because proprietary products were just the expensive versions of the free ones anyway.

In one piece, Verzola also raised the possibility of establishing low-power FM radio, which would limit a broadcast within a three- to five-kilometer radius. While radio, then and now, was hardly cutting-edge technology, it could still be employed to help farmers especially in areas with poor or non-existent mobile phone coverage.

A few years ago, Verzola was involved in establishing a low-power FM radio station in a far-flung community, even though it took time before the initiative got off the ground.

The low-power radio project allowed the community to share information, including planting and harvest details, Verzola said in a conversation with a friend. It became “the community’s Facebook with one member greeting another on the air,” Verzola said. The station was later shuttered by the government.  

For low-power FM radio to work, it required an equitable distribution of radio frequency, a resource regulated by the National Telecommunications Commission and monopolized by big media companies, Verzola said.

But even before he was involved in the radio project, Verzola was already making waves as an enthusiastic advocate of renewable energy.

His second — and last — book, “Crossing Over: The Energy Transition to Renewable Electricity”, was published in 2015 by the Philippine office of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. The book’s second edition was issued less than a year later to, among others, reflect the declining trend of solar panel prices, which would result in cheaper and cleaner electricity.

Like computer chips, solar panels are also subject to Moore’s Law, wherein prices are halved every two or so years, Verzola said in a report by BusinessWorld, which published his occasional opinion pieces. His other written works were published on a blog he maintained called “Ecology, technology and social change: Notes on Green theory and practice”.

Writing came naturally to Verzola, having beaten deadlines for the Philippine Collegian, UP’s student newspaper, and other independent activist publications prior to martial law, such as Ang Masa and Liberation Fornightly, according to his brother, Jun.

When he joined the underground movement, Verzola, who was no longer a student by then, continued to write for Taliba ng Bayan, a publication of the National Democratic Front, an organization led by the Communist Party of the Philippines.

In October 1974, the young activist was captured and tortured by the military. His captors electrocuted him using a process called Meralco, named after Metro Manila’s largest power distributor.

“My interrogators tied the end of one wire around my right index finger and inserted the spoon into my pants, on my right waist, until it rested where the leg meets the lower abdomen, near the crotch. My body would complete the circuit,” Verzola said, in an account that he wrote for “Not on Our Watch: Martial Law Really Happened. We Were There”, published in 2013.

The account of his torture was also featured in journalist Raissa Robles’s book, “Marcos Martial Law: Never Again” which was published in 2016. Verzola was invited to be one of several speakers during the book’s launch, including former senator Rene Saguisag, who wrote the foreword, and UP professor and historian Ricardo T. Jose.

Among those who attended the book launch were fellow anti-Marcos activists such as actor Noel Trinidad, publisher and later Foreign Affairs secretary Teodoro L. Locsin Jr., Ramon Magsaysay awardee Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, and her husband, the late former senator Heherson T. Alvarez, with whom Verzola struck a close friendship before they both died this year. 

During his remarks at the launch, the soft-spoken Verzola recounted his harrowing experience effortlessly, almost impartially, in his signature deadpan manner.

It almost seemed like he had already recovered from the pain and that, four years before his death, the quiet engineer who sacrificed a lot to bring about a better world, had already made peace with his past.

An earlier version of this piece said he died at 68. It has now been corrected to indicate that he passed away at 67.  Verzola also wrote for Liberation Fortnightly, not Liberation as previously published. 

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