Whose "information society"? Or: Was WSIS worth it?
  By Anriette Esterhuysen
  23 March 2004. Was WSIS worth it? The general verdict on the recent United Nations World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) held in December 2003 was a thumbs-down. The Summit outcomes were limited after an arduous and expensive process. However, argues Anriette Esterhuysen, APC executive director, from the perspective of many civil society organisations that participated actively, the WSIS has created a new opportunity for solidarity across ideological, sectoral and geographical divides.

Many of us question the use of the term 'information society', which has the tendency to de-emphasise ongoing inequalities in access to resources.

Nevertheless, the term is here to stay, and the recent United Nations World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), held in Geneva in December 2003, has popularised its use by governments and the media. A Declaration and Plan of Action which outline policy for global coordination of information and communications technologies (ICTs), and propose actions to "bridge the digital divide" were adopted by participating governments. Civil society organizations adopted their own Declaration, developed over the two preceding years, and expressing an alternative vision and proposals.

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

WSIS: was it worth the effort and the expense?

The common verdict is that the official outcomes are very limited, considering the time and expense. In their quest for consensus, governments opted for generalities: broad principles regarding the potential of ICTs for development characterise the Declaration, while the Action Plan focuses on connectivity and infrastructure. Often Declaration and Action Plan contradict one another: the principles expressed in the Declaration are not always carried through to the proposals in the Action Plan. As Sally Burch points out, "the first article of the Declaration affirms 'our common desire and commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and people to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life.'. But in its first article, the Plan of Action limits this vision to 'promoting the use of ICT- based products, networks, services and applications' to achieve development goals." (Burch, Other News - Roberto Savio / IPS, 22 December 2003)

One of the key areas on which governments could not agree on was the financing of digital inclusion programmes. An initiative like the proposed 'digital solidarity fund' which could involve individual buyers of ICTs in rich countries paying a 'digital divide' levy will be discussed by a working group who will make recommendations to the Tunis Summit. Whether this potentially innovative initiative will survive in a form that promotes citizen engagement in development and disburses its funds transparently remains to be seen.

From the perspective of several civil society organisations that participated actively, the WSIS has been an extremely important process, creating a new platform of solidarity across ideological, sectoral and geographical divides.

How effective was civil society participation?

The convenor of the WSIS, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), adopted a 'multi-stakeholder' approach, which included civil society and private sector groups as observers to the official process. Formal opportunities for making an impact were created through short speaker slots, where civil society and private sector representatives could address governments in the plenary, and more significantly, through submitting written proposals.

That looked good on the surface. In practice there were many barriers to the effective participation of civil society. The limited financial resources allocated to travel scholarships, and a hostile attitude on the part of several governments are particularly worth highlighting, e.g. civil society observers were asked to leave some of the government working groups that were set up to deal with controversial issues such as internet governance. A further obstacle was the well-intentioned but cumbersome bureaucracy established by the WSIS civil society secretariat, which resulted in organisations wasting valuable time in trying to sort themselves into 'families' or clusters according to their thematic activities or regions.

Nevertheless, due to the commitment, solidarity and hard work of many civil society participants, and possibly because of the degree of deadlock among governments, a fair amount of the proposals put forward by civil society made it into the final text. Notable examples are the references to the universal declaration of human rights, equality between men and women, and free and open source software.

A watershed in public participation

At the informal level the outcomes are more significant. I believe that the WSIS has been a watershed in the process of public participation in ICT policies. It has facilitated a shift from the world of obscure ICT policy jargon, engaged by a select group of NGOs, consultants, donor agencies, and governments, to a new context in which ICT policy has become firmly located in broader debates on development and society. Many more CSOs have entered the debate, lobbying for important and specific interests. For example, through WSIS new voices sounded in the ICT policy arena, such as those of people living with disabilities, the education and research sectors, the free software movement, children's rights advocates, campaigners for the global information commons and so on.

Civil society organisations that had engaged ICT policies before the WSIS process started, have tended to fall into four broad groups:

  • community media, concerned with spectrum allocation and the regulation of community radio;
  • privacy and anti-censorship groups, concerned with online privacy, interception and monitoring of online communications, and censorship, for example through the filtering of web content;
  • organisations working specifically in ICTs for sustainable development, lobbying for universal public access and affordable internet and telecommunications infrastructure; and,
  • those tracking the ICANN process, the process of assigning internet names and numbers.

These groups have tended to focus narrowly on specific areas of regulation. They have rarely engaged ICT policies in a holistic way, or dealt with issues of global ICT governance. They have been geographically divided between the 'development' groups based mostly in the south, and the 'privacy and civil liberty' groups mostly in the north. The community radio groups have tried to deal with policy and regulation, as well as freedom of information issues, but usually in relation to radio and media ownership and control. They have paid little attention to the specific regulation of the internet and the broader telecommunications sector.

The exception to this was found in groups such as the 'Platform of Action', which launched the Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS) campaign in 2001. While this campaign raised critical issues, it was primarily a platform for progressive organisations already working in the field. Through WSIS its membership has expanded and it became able to fill a gap in the process, as indicated by the very well attended World Forum on Communication Rights convened by CRIS during the WSIS in Geneva on 11 December 2003.

What has changed during WSIS?

Since WSIS, a much broader range of CSOs are tackling ICT policy issues. Experience, confidence and knowledge built during the relatively 'safe' spaces of the civil society plenary and caucuses in WSIS, are feeding directly into national advocacy campaigns. To tell just one story.. In November 2002, the internet activists Association for Progressive Communications (APC), the freedom of expression organisation Article 19, and the United Nations' Economic Commission for Africa, held an ICT policy workshop and WSIS orientation for African civil society in Addis Ababa. Kenyan participants, once back home, asked their national telecommunications regulator: 'What is Kenya doing about the WSIS?' At the time the answer was 'not very much', but at one of the WSIS preparatory meetings (prepcom) in Geneva, the Kenyan CSOs and government delegates got talking again, and the government delegates offered to table civil society 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 continued beyond Geneva. Currently there is a national ICT policy process underway in Kenya and it is relatively inclusive, involving civil society and the private sector. In the Philippines, CSOs are measuring their government's national policy process against the principles agreed on by civil society in its declaration to the WSIS. In South Africa, SANGONeT, a progressive ICT service provider, is convening public consultations on ICT policy in small and medium-sized towns, far away from Johannesburg, where community organisers are able to confront government officials with questions such as 'Where are those phone lines we were promised in 1996'? In Senegal, ENDA Synfev, a women's networking initiative convened a WSIS report-back session attended by more than 75 women. Participants ranged from organisations for the disabled to IT entrepreneurs. In Brazil a civil society organisation, Rits (Third Sector Information Network) has launched an interactive online 'observatory' to facilitate public participation in 'info-inclusion' policy.

These examples show the potential for influencing policy outcomes and for creating a space for networking, from which collaborative implementation can flow. It creates awareness of policy promises and demand for transparent delivery; an important form of public participation absent in many countries. It locates ICT policy as social policy, not technical policy, and it keeps it in the public domain where it belongs.

Current ICT policy and regulation trends raise the danger that the freedoms needed for using ICTs for social justice and sustainable development would be limited. From treaties on cybercrime that can result in invasion of privacy, to the over-commercialisation of radio spectrum and restrictions placed on innovation by intellectual property regimes and telecommunications regulations (for example by limiting low cost options like internet telephony), civil society interests are threatened. We need to be out there protecting them.

ICT infrastructure and civil society

While policy debates rage on, fortunately more openly than before, how are civil society organisations engaging the technology itself?

The opportunities are there: working in a networked way has the potential for greater collaboration, exchange of information, sharing of learning and experiences, and linking the local to the global. But there appears to be a general consensus that the potential of using ICTs to increase the impact of civil society is not fully realised. Often this has been attributed to the poor quality and high cost of connectivity in much of the world. However, connectivity is increasingly more accessible, and often the most innovative uses of ICTs are found among organisations with poor access.

A recent study by Mark Surman and Katherine Reilly commissioned by the Social Science Research Council says that "This issue of appropriation - using networked technologies strategically, politically, creatively - is amongst the most pressing that civil society faces in the information society. The big question is: what should we do with these networked technologies now that we have access to them? ... By all accounts, the broad majority of civil society organizations are struggling with the issue of how to mold these tools to meet their needs - to increase the impact of campaigns, projects and programs using networked technologies. Or, in many cases, they 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. It is not that these organizations use networked technologies completely without question or critique, but rather that they don't take the time to consider how they can be using these technologies most strategically." (Surman and Reilly, Appropriating the Internet for Social Change, SSRC, November 2003)

I would argue that there are four dimensions to tackle: policy and regulation, at national and global levels, as discussed above; understanding the information technology market place, and how it tends to turn people into consumers rather than creative users of technology; capacity building so that people have the know-how to use the tools available to them, and; planning and thinking strategically about ICTs and networking.

The capacity issue

The thread that links the challenge of creatively using ICT to the involvement of civil society in the policy process is capacity. It is a very fragile thread. There is not enough investment in learning and capacity building, within individual institutions and more broadly in the sector.

APC used the WSIS as a springboard for building the capacity of civil society to engage in ICT policy advocacy. We developed a curriculum and manual of ICT 'for beginners', and a guide to conducting national policy consultations. Demand for the training has been overwhelming; donor support less so. If it were not for the networking opportunities presented by WSIS, the scale of formal capacity building and informal learning would have looked very different.

How do we build capacity for strategic appropriation of ICTs? We want to do this not for the sake of technology on its own, "but rather to enable civil society organizations to collaborate better, communicate more effectively and to have more social impact." Surman and Reilly outline several innovative recommendations in their paper, ranging from the need for building a "social tech movement" made up of organisations and individuals that provide support and training to CSOs, to "embracing the open source movement" and creating "better maps of civic cyberspace".

I would support their suggestions and, in summary, make the point that we need to enhance learning and capacity building, as well as engage actively in the political and policy processes that surround the technologies we use.

Learning how to use ICTs creatively can be both formal and informal and is 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 the WSIS process 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 and websites, committees and consultations are testimony to this.

In the ICT world, as in the rest of the world, it matters who owns what, who controls innovation, and who shapes policy and regulation. We need to take our passion and our policies to our PCs. Shifting from MS Office to a free software application like Openoffice.org may seem a low priority for CSOs, but it 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, applies to the ICT world as well. 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 networking and learning.

CRIS, http://www.crisinfo.org
APC News, December 2003, http://www.apc.org/english/news/index.shtml?x=15966
Rits is the APC member in Brazil, http://www.rits.br.
Surman and Reilly 2003, p.74.
See Surman and Reilly 2003 pp. 71-74.

About the Author
Anriette Esterhuysen is the Executive Director of APC, the Association for Progressive Communications.
Contact: <anriette(at)apc.org>

Source: A shorter version of this article was first published in Alliance, Vol 9, No 1, March 2003.  2004. This version was originally published at the APC website at http://www.apc.org/english/about/history/english.shtml?cmd[384]=i-575-17983.



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