Whose ‘information society’?

Anriette Esterhuysen

Many question the use of the term ‘information society’, with its tendency to gloss over fundamental inequalities. Nevertheless, it is here to stay and the recent UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), in Geneva in December 2003, popularized its use by governments and the media. Probably the most important outcome of the WSIS is that information and communications technology (ICT) policy has moved out of its narrow niche as technology policy to be located firmly in the domain of social policy and development.

Since completion of the first WSIS phase, academics and activists have been debating the event, process, outcomes and prospects for the second phase, to be held, controversially, in Tunis in 2005.

WSIS: was it worth it?

The common verdict is that official outcomes are limited. In seeking consensus, governments opted for generalities: broad principles regarding  ICTs’ potential for development characterize the Declaration, while the Action Plan focuses on connectivity and infrastructure.

A key area of disagreement was the financing of digital inclusion. Initiatives like the proposed ‘digital solidarity fund’, which included a proposal for ICT buyers in rich countries to pay a ‘digital divide’ levy, will be discussed by a working group that will make recommendations in Tunis. Whether it will survive in a form that promotes citizen engagement in development and disburses funds transparently remains to be seen. Civil society organizations (CSOs) did not endorse the official outcomes but adopted their own Declaration expressing an alternative vision and plan.

Nevertheless, from the perspective of several CSOs that participated actively, the WSIS has been valuable, creating a new platform of solidarity across ideological, sectoral and geographical divides.

How effective was CSO participation?

The WSIS convenor, the International Telecommunications Union, adopted a ‘multi-stakeholder’ approach, including CSO and private sector observers in the process. Formal opportunities for making an impact consisted of short speaking slots in the government plenary, and, more significantly, via written proposals.

This looked good in theory. In reality there were many barriers to effective CSO participation. The limited financial resources allocated to travel scholarships and a hostile attitude from some governments are worth noting: observers were asked to leave some government working groups dealing with controversial issues such as internet governance.  Another barrier was the well-intentioned but cumbersome bureaucracy of the WSIS civil society secretariat, causing CSOs to waste valuable time sorting themselves into ‘families’ by thematic activities or regions.

None the less, through commitment, solidarity and hard work, and possibly owing to the deadlock among governments, a fair number of CSO proposals made it into the final text, including references to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, gender equality, and free and open source software.

A watershed in public participation

At the informal level the outcomes are more significant. The WSIS was a watershed in terms of public participation in ICT policies. ICT policy is now firmly located in broader debates on development and society, and new voices have sounded in the ICT policy arena, such as those of people with disabilities and the free software movement.

CSOs that engaged in ICT policy before WSIS[1] began tended to focus narrowly on specific areas of regulation, rarely engaging with the issues in a holistic way or dealing with global ICT governance issues. They have been geographically divided between ‘development’ groups, based mostly in the South, and ‘privacy and civil liberty’ groups, mostly in the North.[2]

What changed during WSIS?

Since WSIS, a wider range of CSOs are tackling ICT policy issues. Experience, confidence and knowledge built during the relatively ‘safe’ WSIS are feeding directly into national advocacy campaigns. In November 2002, for example, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), Article 19,[3] and the UN Economic Commission for Africa held an ICT policy workshop and WSIS orientation for African civil society. Once back home, Kenyan participants asked their national telecoms regulator what Kenya was doing about the WSIS. At the time the answer was ‘not very much’, but at the WSIS preparatory meeting (prepcom) in Geneva, Kenyan CSOs and government delegates started talking again, and the government delegates offered to table CSO proposals in the official forum. At the next prepcom, civil society was invited to join the Kenyan delegation.

The real gain is that these links continue beyond Geneva. In the Philippines, for example, CSOs are measuring the national policy process against the principles in the civil society declaration to the WSIS.[4] In Senegal, ENDASynfev convened a WSIS report-back session attended by more than 75 women, from a variety of organizations. In Brazil, Rits (Third Sector Information Network)[5] has launched an interactive online ‘observatory’ to facilitate public participation in ‘info-inclusion’ policy.[6]

These illustrate the potential for influencing policy and creating space for networking and collaborative implementation. Awareness of policy promises and demand for transparent delivery is an important form of public participation. It locates ICT policy as social not technical policy and keeps it in the public domain.

Current ICT policy and regulations could limit the freedoms needed if ICTs are to be used for social justice and sustainable development. Restrictions placed on innovation by intellectual property regimes and telecommunications regulations are just two examples. We need to protect civil society interests here.

ICT infrastructure and civil society

While policy debates rage on, fortunately more openly than before, how are CSOs engaging ICT itself?

Opportunities exist: working in a networked way can strengthen collaboration, information exchange and learning, and link local to global. But the consensus appears to be that ICT’s potential for increasing civil society impact is not fully realized. This is often attributed to the poor quality and high cost of connectivity, but connectivity is increasingly accessible and the most innovative ICT uses are often found where access is difficult.

A recent study by Mark Surman and Katherine Reilly says:
‘This issue of appropriation – using networked technologies strategically, politically, creatively – is among the most pressing that civil society faces in the information society… By all accounts, the broad majority of CSOs are struggling with the issue of how to mould these tools to meet their needs … Or … are simply using them without any thought about where and how these technologies fit into the political work for which they feel so much passion.’[7]

There are four dimensions to tackle:

· policy and regulation, at national and global level;

· understanding the ICT marketplace and how it tends to turn people into consumers rather than creative users;

· capacity-building so people know how to use the tools available;

· planning and thinking strategically about ICTs and networking.

The capacity issue

The thread linking the challenge of using ICT creatively to the involvement of civil society in the policy process is capacity. It is very fragile. There is not enough investment in learning and capacity-building, within institutions, in the broader sector or by donors.

APC and others used the WSIS as a springboard for building civil society’s capacity to engage in ICT policy advocacy, developing a curriculum and manual of ICT ‘for beginners’, and a guide to conducting national policy consultations.[8] Demand for the training has been overwhelming; donor support less so.

How do we build capacity for strategic appropriation of ICTs? Not for the sake of ICT on its own, ‘but rather to enable CSOs to collaborate better, communicate more effectively and to have more social impact’. Surman and Reilly outline several innovative recommendations, such as building a ‘social tech movement’ made up of organizations and individuals providing CSO support and training, ‘embracing the open source movement’ and creating ‘better maps of civic cyberspace’. I support their suggestions and stress that we need to enhance learning and capacity-building, and engage actively in the political and policy processes that surround the ICTs we use.

Learning to use ICTs creatively can be one of the most enduring outcomes of online networking. We need to actively learn and share experiences of our use of ICTs in collaborative work. The unintended outcome of WSIS that will stay with many CSOs even once hopes for policy transformation have faded is the experience of using ICTs creatively. The many WSIS online forums, websites, committees and consultations are testimony to this.

In the ICT world, as elsewhere, it matters who owns what, controls innovation and shapes policy and regulation. We need to take our passion and our policies to our computers. Shifting from MS Office to a free software application like OpenOffice.org may seem a low priority for CSOs, but can save money and make a statement about the power of choice.

The slogan ‘Another world is possible’, adopted by the global justice and solidarity movement, also applies to the ICT world. It is up to us to make it concrete by thinking creatively and acting to appropriate technology. It is up to donors to continue to invest in capacity-building, networking and learning.

1 These tended to fall into four broad groups: community radio; privacy and anti-censorship groups; organizations working specifically in ICTs for development; and those tracking the ICANN process, which assigns internet names and numbers.

2 The exception to this were groups such as the ‘Platform of Action’, which launched the Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS) campaign in 2001. See http://www.crisinfo.org

3 A freedom of expression organization.

4 APC News, December 2003. See http://www.apc.org/english/news/index.shtml?x=15966

5 Rits is the APC member in Brazil. See http://www.rits.br

6 http://www.infoinclusao.org.br

7 Mark Surman and Katherine Reilly (2003) Appropriating the Internet for Social Change. New York: Social Science Research Council. See http://www.ssrc.org/programs/itic/publications/knowledge_report/final_entire_surman_reilly.pdf

8 See http://www.apc.org/english/capacity/policy/index.shtml

Anriette Esterhuysen is Executive Director of APC. She can be contacted at anriette@apc.org

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