Failure and Success at the WSIS: Civil Society's Next Moves
  By Sean O'Siochru, Spokesperon for the CRIS Campaign.
  23 February 2004. The depth of disappointment with the formal outcome of the World Summit on the Information Society cannot be fully explained by reference to the usual process of Summit attrition, governments horse-trading down to the lowest common denominator.

Yes, a mutually convenient alliance of powerful and autocratic governments blocked action to tackle the erosion of civil and human rights in electronic space; the US watered down support for development-friendly free and open source software; and community-driven approaches got barely a mention. But other areas might in time yield modest results, such as the call to reroute huge volumes of southern internet traffic internally instead of via the US, the idea of an archive for scientific research setting, and even the review of internet governance.

What is difficult to explain is the failure of wealthy governments to act decisively on the primary motivation for the Summit - the fear that the 'digital divide' is reinforcing the 'education divide', the 'income divide', the 'health divide', instead of alleviating them. No new mechanisms were created; a decision on the Digital Solidarity Fund was pushed forward only to prevent a collapse of the Summit. A fuller answer emerges when the WSIS is viewed in its historical context, as the intersection of two global debates that for several decades have unfolded in parallel, seldom touching. The WSIS witnessed the dying moments of one, but the other raises hope for the future.

The 'official' debate on the 'information society' (then called the 'post-industrial society') dates to the early 1970s. Academics demonstrated that 'information workers' had become the largest block of workers in wealthy countries, that an 'intellectual technology' infrastructure was emerging alongside the industrial infrastructure, and that more and more goods were in fact packaged information. These insights predated the explosion in ICTs, and offered several different strategic models for society to take full advantage of the trend, from state-led investment through to market-led approaches. This is interesting for two reasons: It gives the lie to 'technology determinists' who argue that technological innovation drives what later became known as the 'information society', pointing to a more complex process of a growing role of information provoking the revolution in technology. More important, however, it reminds us that there are more ways to build an information society than the purely market-driven one - that there are many conceivable information societies and that the way we choose to construct it will leave a deep imprint on the kind that we end up with.

Only in the mid 1990s did the 'information society' agenda narrow to its current form, with the coining of the term by the European Union to launch its efforts to compete with the US' Global Information Infrastructure. In the political drive to privatise and liberalise, the corporate sector henceforth was to be the main actor with governments playing merely a facilitating role. The WSIS uncritically adopted this vision, the inherent limitations of which resulting in failure to inspire the innovation needed to achieve its goals.

For this model has reached its limits. The ITU in 2002 reported that the growth rate in new telephone lines (still the basic means for people to access the information society) had for the first time "plunged", and with half the world's telecom operators in private hands, that ".most 'easy' privatisations have already been carried out." (Telecoms Development Report 2002) Although partly cyclical, evidence is mounting that with pent-up demand among the middle classes and commercial entities largely satisfied, the market is incapable of delivering services to the mass of people outside. A narrow profit-driven agenda and the absence of effective universal services policies leave the majority of poorer people globally with little prospect of joining in this information society. The failure of the WSIS to set up, let alone finance, a 'Digital Solidarity Fund' demanded by poorer countries was down to the refusal of powerful governments to deviate from the prescribed model, which have served their corporations so well, and to consider alternative paradigms for development.

However, this information society agenda was met in Geneva by another, broader, agenda.

Also in the 1970s, the world for the first time debated the role of communication in society, embracing such matters as media governance, freedom of expression and human rights, spectrum and satellite use, journalism ethics and news, and cultural diversity. For a decade, the halls of UNESCO echoed with the heated arguments of governments trapped in a Cold War vocabulary, in the end achieving little. But concerns raised by this effort, however compromised, and the hopes raised by the idea of a right to communicate, did not disappear. In the two decades since, many in civil society have grown worried about the concentration of ownership of media and its focus on profits, the ever-growing duration of copyright and exceptionally powerful criminal laws to enforce it, the commercialisation of knowledge creation and a host of related issues.

Many among the thousands of NGOs converging on Geneva last December brought these issues to the WSIS, arguing that it is impossible to truly debate an 'information society' without considering who owns information, who controls its production and dissemination, and whose interests that information ultimately serves. At the WSIS, civil society demanded that these issues also be put on the table. When they were refused, they produced their own 'Civil Society Declaration', containing the bones of an alternative vision of an information society that truly puts people first, that holds the information and communication are inseparable, and that points to alternative ways of getting there.

Of course, it is perhaps unfair to criticise the WSIS for not tackling these issues. Neither governments nor the ITU ever intended it to address such broad concerns, no matter how genuine. The problem facing the CRIS campaign and others was that there is nowhere else to debate them at global level. Key changes to accessing knowledge, to the diversity of the audio-visual sector, or to cultural creativity are often wrought in the small print of WTO agreements, World Bank and IMF conditionality, the arcane language of WIPO, or endless technical meetings of the ITU. There exists no forum for all stakeholders to openly debate them, to fully explore their implications, to allow society as a whole into decisions that will deeply effect our future. Civil society had no choice but to bring them to the WSIS - a fact appreciated by many sympathetic governments - and the CRIS Campaign was always explicit concerning both the limitations of the formal WSIS process but and the opportunity offered by the informal process.

This 'side-door' entry into the WSIS raises the question of where this valuable debate can now reconvene, and is a key question for the CRIS Campaign and for many others.

The second phase of the WSIS is unlikely to offer an opportunity to rehearse the broader questions. But momentum gathered at the WSIS can be carried forward, apart from Tunis, towards other transnational governance fora and processes. The proposed UNESCO convention on cultural diversity might offer a useful platform to collaborate with like-minded governments; whilst the ongoing WTO negotiations around audio-visual sectors is an opportunity to articulate alternatives to the market approach. And there are many others, including at regional and bi-lateral levels.

On the other hand, at least equally important is to keep momentum going within the transnational processes of civil society itself, to deepen our understanding of the issues and build wider coalitions through for instance the World Social Forum and its regional counterparts. In the medium term, progress will depend largely on the capacity of civil society, working in collaboration others, to develop credible, realistic alternatives to the current paradigms to build the information and communication society.

Finally, organising and advocacy at the national and local levels, for the CRIS campaign as for others, is the key to long term sustainability and progress in communication rights. Despite all the talk and activity at global level, the national level is still where most people identify and feel the impact of change, the level at which they organise together, the level of most policy decision-making, and the level at which governments can be influenced and persuaded how to proceed in global and regional fora.

Indeed the importance of the national level is a lesson that the WSIS might usefully have been taken to heart, though there is little evidence that the Summit has created a momentum for that.

This version appeared first on the website of the "Communication Rights in the Information Society" (CRIS) campaign, see
An edited version was published in UNRISD News No. 26, Spring/Summer 2004.

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