22 June 2005. A conference in Amsterdam last week brought together many info-activists and critical intellectuals for reflections on the "information for development" discourse. Themes of the "Incommunicado" event ranged from multi-stakeholderism at WSIS to the global political economy of information. It also was the largest gathering of people involved inside and outside the WSIS that provided a critical look at "the big picture". Timing was good, as discussions like this have been going on implicitly and informally for a while.
Information for development? Or information capitalism?
The major theme of the conference was a critique of mainstream efforts like the WSIS process or the UN ICT Task Force and numerous smaller initiatives and networks that comprise the field of "ICT for Development" (ICT4D). While in many cases it is even not clear what "development" means here and how ICTs can provide a remedy for more pressing problems like hunger and poverty, what is missing in general is an analysis of the information society as part of globalized capitalism.
Roberto Verzola, a renowned campaigner and ICT worker from the Philippines, drew a clear picture of the emerging information economy. Unlike agricultural or industrial economies, it is defined by low to zero costs of copying information goods, and thereby high profit margins. While one American can make one CD copy of, let's say, an operating system in one minute that will be sold for 100 dollars, ten Indonesians need three months to produce rice worth the same amount of money. Thereby, the information-heavy countries, especially the United States, have developed a new way of capital extraction from the less developed countries mainly in the South. The fact that information goods can be sold at prices way higher than the production costs is maintained by their artificial scarcity, formalized and enforced through intellectual property rights. These artificial monopolies make their owners the new rent-seekers, or like Verzola said, "the landlords of cyberspace - or the cyberlords". Their wealth relies on the continuation of the artificial scarcity built into the global information economy. Therefore, practices of sharing information for free and approaches like the Free Software community are direct threat to the US information economy. Anriette Esterhuysen from APC commented that the term "information economy" implies a commodification of information and ideas. Development, Verzola added, can either be development of the market or of the commons. But only the latter should be judged serious development, as it transcends the economic model that led to the economic and then information divide in the first place.
Belgian journalist Heimo Claassen added a perspective on the technological foundations that are currently being built into next generation versions of PCs and Windows and other mainstream ICTs. Digital Rights Management (DRM) techniques and "trusted computing" (where the vendor distrusts the consumer systematically) are the hardwired implementations of the capitalist information economy.
Sasha Costanza-Chock from the media trade monitor, in a final videoconference giving his input from the United States, added a perspective of the external, material conditions for this information economy. According to him, the digital divide is in fact needed for the information capitalism. "Someone has to dig the minerals from the earth to build computers, and the labour of the miners has to be cheap enough", he said. Therefore, incommunicados and incommunicadas - people deprived of the rights and means of communication - are needed by the system to continue. "ICT4D will always fail under capitalist conditions", he added. Any ICT4D framework that does not engage capitalism should be dismantled.
While countries like Brazil and India have politically stepped up their resistance to the U.S. led information economy approach, they have a familiar hype at home around ICTs and a lack of sensitivity towards local cultures and needs. T. B. Dinesh from BangaloreIT.org in India presented some observations on the impact of IT on society in the South. In line with with recently liberalized markets, schools now start to only accept kids whose parents work in the IT sector. Pure business interests have topmost priority for government and other major players, while the people working in the information technology field are still only one percent of the Indian population.
Sometimes the impact of ICTs on human development is even worse in developing countries and regions. Shuddha Sengupta from the Sarai Centre in India, a co-sponsor of the conference, made clear that a lot of the "periphery" is much more advanced in terms of surveillance than the centre. The new Indian ID card will include fingerprints and retina scans and will produce the hugest database of this kind in the world. The card will be linked to all kinds of databases, from health to banking, agriculture, schools admission, land registration, travel, and so on. Interestingly, the language used to convince the population of the need for the card is one of "entitlement". "You should be entitled to education as a human being, not because you have a card", Sengupta said. In the end, the card and the concepts around it imply that some are not entitled to the same services and rights as others.
Communication rights revisited
This liked nicely to a panel on the "communication rights" campaign and approach. Several panelists criticised the CRIS campaign for pushing a "legalistic game", as Ned Rossiter from the University of Ulster / UK said. Noortje Marres from the University of Amsterdam complained that the rights "frame" was just a means to avoid tackling the real question, which would be: "What is the exact political problem with communication and ICTs?" Soenke Zehle, Incommunicado co-organizer with renowned new media critic Geert Lovink, went as far as stating that the Creative Commons project does to the intellectual property rights system what CRIS does to communication. It cleans the hybrid, informal and local forms of social practices and submerges them it under legal language.
Sally Burch from APC member ALAI in Equador delivered a great defense of the CRIS campaign. According to her, the problem in the beginning of the WSIS process was not a clean legalistic language, but a very technocratic approach to ICTs. The CRIS campaign wanted to open the discussion and make sure that human rights are in fact addressed in WSIS. It was therefore a tactical enterprise to start a rights discussion, but also has a longer horizon.
Anriette Esterhuysen added that we still lack a language of solidarity in the information and communication field. Therefore the organizations involved in the CRIS campaign used the language of rights, in order to make people able to use a shared language and identify with all the different struggles of all the others. Sally Burch added that the extension of rights to new areas was a common pattern in human history. As soon as the differentiation and specialization of labour made it impossible for most people to produce their own food, having something to eat became a rights issue. A discussion that did not occur at this point in Amsterdam, but would be interesting to hold, would tackle the link between rights and economies: Under which conditions would an economy provide all people with basic goods without making them the subjects of rights or objects of entitlement programmes? At least in the information field, the emerging economy and culture of sharing seem pretty promising here.
Multistakerholderism or revolution? On the role of civil society groups
The second large theme of the conference was the role of civil society groups in the ICT4D and information policy arenas traditionally dominated by the private sector, governments and international organizations. According to Sally Burch, the dominant economic model is losing legitimacy, and "we as civil society groups are providing this legitimacy" through the emerging paradigm of multi-stakeholderism. As became clear during the two days of discussions, the relationship is a bit more complex than this. Activists and NGOs can use their role in this game in a tactical way. As Soenke Zehle stated, legitimacy is a scarce resource. It gives those who provide it some leverage on the way the game is played, and they can always pull out and use their exit option.
But what legitimacy does civil society have at all? Bernardo Sorj from the University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil said that speaking about civil society as an actor was totally undemocratic. In general, he was cautious of too high hopes for the impact of NGOs. "No revolutions have been produced by NGOs", he added. Ljupco Gjorgjinski from the Centre for Dialogue and Democracy in Macedonia replied that civil society groups have an evolutionary impact and resemble more the constant drop of water on a stone, which is much more important and sustainable. Bernhard Sorj also asked for a mechanism to create representation within civil society while at the same time making transparent the different positions. Lisa McLaughlin from Miami University in Ohio/USA questioned the widespread view that the WSIS Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) was a best practice model. "Is it really good to just eliminate diversity to a point where you can get to a consensus?", she asked. Anriette Esterhuysen from APC cautioned this focus on process and legitimacy questions. Too often, concerns in WSIS civil society were about process, not about content, she said. It was more "who can speak", not "what should he or she say". It is too easy to deconstruct concepts like "civil society", "multi-stakeholderism" or "ICT4D", but it is much more challenging to come up with substantive suggestions on how e.g. internet governance should be designed so it represents the interests of users and citizens, while at the same time improving privacy and free speech online.
The other side of the coin is the incorporation of the business sector into UN policy-making. Michael Gurstein from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, who used to work for the United Nations, made clear that the UN is a very small institution, comparable to the police force of New York City. There are not as many policy people in the UN as one would expect, so actions are not always thought-through. On top of this, because of regular staff re-assignments, the organization has a short institutional memory. How can and should one deal with the private sector under these conditions? What is clear, as Stijn van der Krogt from IICD in the Netherlands said: Exclusive partnerships with corporations should never be allowed for the UN. For NGOs that are involved in the UN and have to deal with these corporations, or for the ones that work with them directly, it seems that standard contract clauses and codes of conduct are helpful, as Michael Gurstein added. Anriette Esterhuysen gave the example of Schoolnet Africa, which has developed a written code of conduct for private-public and multi-stakeholder partnerships to make sure they keep their independence. The question of how to structure the relationship in way that the credibility of the NGOs does not get compromised is becoming an important part of third sector brand management, it seems. Soenke Zehle suggested at the end to start something like www.ppp-watch.org for critical discussions and research on private-public partnerships.
Future work and how to relate it to the WSIS
The Incommunicado conference was a successful effort to bring many people together with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences - some inside, some outside official policy processes, some involved in research, some in field work, but all with an interest in progressive and critical perspectives. It addressed some important questions and provided many clarifications on different perspectives. The organizers from the Institute for Network Cultures are planning to produce a DVD with documentation and more material. The conference was also the kick-off event for a larger network, and the discussions are already going further on the mailing list. The mid-term plan is to establish regular publications and events.
If this really happens, then last week's event provided a good overview and started some discussions. But it also was too unstructured, trying to grasp everything and thereby lacking a clear focus. Too often, it was also the usual pattern of academics from the North easily criticizing involvement in real policy processes from an armchair perspective, while people from field projects or lobbying campaigns are doing the hard work. But at least this event brought the different sides together for joint discussions. Follow-up projects should be more focused then, in order to come up with clearer results and a deeper understanding of the different issues.
Half a year before the Tunis summit, the conference provided some avenues for further discussion. Maybe an alternative event at the WSIS summit in Tunis can facilitate this. But critical discussions and assessments like this are also needed before the summit takes place. Civil society groups again will have to decide how to position themselves towards or against the official circus, and they will come up with a more thought-through approach if they have a look at the big picture. Here, the Incommunicado conference came just right, as it offered a more detailed look at the various problems related not only to ICT4D and multi-stakeholderism, but to the global development of information capitalism.
Conference website: http://www.incommunicado.info/conference
Conference wiki: http://www.networkcultures.org/wiki/
Conference Blog: http://www.networkcultures.org/weblog/
Incommunicado Mailing List: http://mail.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/incom-l