28 July 2004. The Commission of the European Union has recently issued a communication on the WSIS that is a major indicator of the EU's strategy for the second phase of the summit after PrepCom1 took place in Tunisia in June. The document, titled "Towards a Global Partnership in the Information Society", mainly confirms the neoliberal agenda of the EU.
In the introduction, the Commission already repeats the mantra that ICTs "lead to higher productivity growth". After the struggles of the first phase, the EU as many other actors is not interested in opening up the summit declaration of principles again, but wants to focus on implementation. It is telling how this boils down to concrete actions and recommendations. Throughout the document, the EU Commission refers to information and communication technologies (ICTs) as a general means for improving quality of life. It states that the "challenge is to make ICT available and affordable". The whole document is in line with two hidden assumptions that the EU is either not understanding enough or not willing to discuss.
Na´ve optimism about technology
First, the EU Commission's communication reveals a na´ve view of technology, especially computer technology. The belief system here reminds one of the mid-nineties, when many people still thought that if everyone on the world finally had internet access, the world altogether would be a better place. It reminds one of even earlier times like the 1970s, when computers where thought of as the generic machines that would make life easier and better for everybody.
The political debate and also scientific research that started in the 1980s and really took off in the wake of Lawrence Lessig's "Code is Law" argument in the late 1990s has showed, though, that this view is ignoring the specifics of the real technology in place. If the world becomes a better place does not depend on how much of it is deployed, but much more on what technology exactly we are talking about. A data and communications network can be a new space for the voluntary and deliberative association of free individuals for political self-governance, but it can also be a massive tool of mass influence, surveillance and control. It all depends on how the technology is exactly built, who owns it and in which social context it is used.
In the EU Commission's communication, this is not acknowledged at all. Chapter 2.3 on "priority applications" makes this especially clear. It provides a list of policy areas where the EU wants to become more active and involved and will try to promote the use of ICTs all over the world. It reads like a document of the mid-nineties' dot-com bubble: "e-Government", "e-Learning", "e-Health", "e-Business" - basically "e-anything". One has to wonder how little the bureaucrats in Brussels have noticed that this time is long over - or how little serious work and thought they have actually put into this document.
New markets for technology export
The second hidden assumption (or maybe better: agenda) is clearly an attempt to use the second phase of the WSIS for opening new markets and selling European technology products to developing countries and emerging markets. It is in line with the general neoliberal ideal of opening markets and making possible a global free flow of capital and investments: "The creation of an environment capable of attracting investment and providing for sustainable growth and development in an inclusive manner is the first priority."
The EU will therefore try to use the major effort of the second phase of the WSIS - the implementation of the Plan of Action - for getting access to new markets. Here, the least developed countries are not the first priority for the EU, as there is not much money to earn. The commission instead prefers to focus on its new neighbours in the East and on emerging larger markets like Latin America, China or India.
For the regions that really suffer underdevelopment, public debts and lack of connectivity, the EU is much less ambitious. The Commission's communication here for example recommends that the "use the potential of existing dispersed infrastructures in different sub-Saharan countries may be envisaged". This does not quite sound like a serious attempt to listen to what the people in these regions really need and want.
Other issues: Has the EU been at the Geneva summit at all?
The other issues that are mentioned in the communication are not of too great importance the EU commission, it seems. Human Rights are referred to here and there, and the EU is generally in favour of an approach that includes all stakeholders. But this read like lip service, as there is no real action proposed to actually enhance and improve these dimensions of the information society. The EU Commission has not even decided if it wants to participate in the working groups on Internet governance and finance set up by the WSIS in 2003.
Instead, "security", "spam", "different software models" and "intellectual property rights" are the only "horizontal issues" that the Commission feels obliged to refer to in its communication. The answers are also pretty unimaginative: "Intellectual property rights" should be protected, there is a need for international cooperation on "security", spam "is another challenge", and "different software models" (free and proprietary software) are just a question of competition and choice. This falls back behind a lot of what was achieved during the first phase of WSIS.
Many important issues like gender equality, the mass media, the preservation of humanity's knowledge, environmental or indigenous issues, or cultural and linguistic diversity are completely missing from this document. The EU seems to think that civil society or the UNESCO will take care of these, so the governments or the Brussels bureaucrats do not have to bother thinking about them.
The EU as the wolf in the sheep's fur?
During the Geneva phase of the summit, the European Union has helped massively to support human rights, media freedom and diversity in the information society, among other things. It has also slowly but constantly increased its direct interaction with European activists during the WSIS process. And it was a great ally for independent civil society groups during the silencing attempts at the recent PrepCom in Tunisia.
But this does not mean that the political agenda the EU is pursuing for the information society is along the lines of a just and human-centred information society as called for in the civil society summit declaration. As we have pointed out during the first phase, the EU gets away too easily if the discussions and the media attention are just focussing around human rights issues.
In the first phase, blaming China for trying to keep any human rights references out of the summit declaration was important. But because of that, the EU (and the United States of course) almost got away with their opposition to knowledge sharing and to reforms for overcoming the digital (and the underlying economic) divide.
This time, the Tunisian government and its behaviour during PrepCom1 have done a good job of placing human rights squarely on the radar of the world's public - at least the part of it that is following the summit process. The EU is already taking this as a cheap excuse for not having the next preparatory conferences in Tunisia, while in fact it always wanted to have them in Geneva for financial and practical reasons. At the same time, independent Tunisian human rights groups are desperately hoping to not loose the international support they could build in the last few months. This will definitely be much more difficult if the whole WSIS caravan is only travelling to Switzerland again.
Civil society groups from Europe have to make sure that they closely coordinate with the EU governments and institutions on human rights issues, indeed. But at the same time, they have to take up the equally challenging and maybe more frustrating job of delivering a sound and competent criticism of the neoliberal agenda that is behind the EU's current approach towards the summit.