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CFSC and the World Summit on Information Society: The Beginning of a Global Information Society Discourse by Parminder Jeet Singh and Anita Gurumurthy

The apparent "fuzziness"¯ of the WSIS' outcomes must be viewed in context. The meeting had no clear mandate, according to Parminder Jeet Singh and Anita Gurumurthy, who both work for IT for Change ( In their commentary on WSIS, they write that civil society must take a lead role in shaping the future of the Information Age"”or it will remain driven only by the private sector.

The Context of WSIS

In attempting to evaluate the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), two of its characteristics need especially to be kept in view. One is the fact that WSIS, unlike earlier world summits, was not mandated with a more or less clear-cut global "problem."¯ It came out of excitement generated by some paradigmatic breakthroughs in Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) at the turn of the millennium. These breakthroughs were manifestly far-reaching, and to many they seemed to herald a "new model of social organization"¯ or a new kind of society. History testifies to such links between disruptive technologies and basic societal changes. Such a broad context to the WSIS meant that its mandate was never very clear and well formed. Different people came to WSIS with completely different ideas. The fuzziness of WSIS outcomes must be seen in this light.

The second important characteristic of WSIS is the global governance context in which it was located. The unilateralism of the United States has become increasingly more menacing, and neo-liberal ideology is strengthening its grasp over the global policy and governance spaces. The ICT phenomenon has largely been private sector-driven and such has been the domination of the private sector in this arena that it is often considered the primary expert on strategy and policy, even when the use of ICTs has concerned social and developmental purposes. ICT multi-nationals have been getting politically more powerful than ever before, further sidelining the state and other legitimate political entities from the discourse on shaping an emerging "information society."¯

In light of the above analysis, it is meaningful to discuss the outcomes of WSIS in terms of: (1) what was achieved of substance; and (2) what are the implications of WSIS for global governance.

What Exactly Was WSIS About?

The ICT and the "information society"¯ phenomenon were born in the North. And their concepts and theories largely represent the dominant socio-economic paradigm of today's world. At one level, new ICTs were conceived as bringing forth a new Global Information Infrastructure (a term used by the United States) and at another, they were considered as underpinning a new economic system called the "knowledge economy."¯ The term information society was popularised by the European Union, but its vision remains largely economic, and within existing paradigms.

The North-driven information society discourse has not really been willing to address the structural and institutional shifts implied in the far-reaching impact of the new ICTs on our social and political processes, even while vaguely acknowledging them, in the conception of a new type of society. This is quite understandable as the attitude of the "incumbent."¯ However, these new paradigms are more meaningful for the South, vast sections of the population of which are ill-served by the dominant socio-economic paradigm. Unfortunately, the leaders of the countries of the South have mostly not shown the vision to grasp the new opportunities and have not begun to engage with the information society discourse on the terms determined by the interests of the South. Under these circumstances, the relevance of ICTs to development is also an arena whose theory has mostly come from the North, predominantly in the form of a cooption into the dominant discourse on ICTs and the IS. Many initiatives"”like the DOT Force initiative of G-8 countries, the Digital Opportunity Initiative, and United Nations' ICT Task Force"”and their reports, build a largely neo-liberal framework of ICT for development (ICTD), which remains the default information society discourse in its developmental context.

Against this background, WSIS may be seen as having made considerable progress in terms of a broader and certainly more legitimate conception of a global information society. The WSIS outcome documents have a much greater socio-political vision and make greater reference to some paradigmatic and structural aspects of the impact of the new ICTs than the documents referred to above on ICTD that seek to articulate a pragmatic and efficiency-based discourse that is essentially neo-liberal.

WSIS has legitimised and given broad directions to the information society discourse"”the real fruits of which, it must be admitted, lie only in the future. It was too much to expect a United Nations summit, especially in the present conditions of global governance, to make [the type of] paradigmatic visionary shifts to global policy that a meaningful engagement with IS issues really calls for. The outcome documents do contain many "pegs"¯ that can be used to shape an information society discourse in the required directions. The institutional basis provided by WSIS and its follow-up (however weak and poorly defined) provide the context and the space for a collective engagement with IS changes to guide them in directions of greater equity and social justice.

The arena of real struggles to define the significance of the emerging information society in terms of greater equity and social justice, or in a more general way, in terms of a people-centric and development-oriented information society [these terms are used by the Declaration of Principles of the Geneva phase of WSIS as an articulation of the vision of the information society], mostly lies outside the confines of WSIS. And many contestations have been happening all around us"”in the open source and free software movement, in open content paradigms like Creative Commons and Wikipedia, in a growing alternative or citizens' media, in "illegal"¯ Voice Over Internet Protocol, (VoIP) and in free public wireless connectivity models. An example from closer to home, in India, would be in the potential of the Internet in operationalising the right to information legislations and enforcing transparency in many governmental processes. Of course, we have also been witness to the negative aspects of new ICTs as well, from the use of online spaces for sexual abuse to the role of ICTs in strengthening the stranglehold of global capital. While the new digital technologies promise greater democratisation of information and communication, the use of these technologies to increase the state's interference in and control over the private lives of citizens is an issue that has greatly concerned the civil society.

An ongoing information society discourse that sees these struggles in a broader and shared context can certainly help them along in a positive manner"”both through their legitimization"”even if with contestations"”and through sharing information and strategies across different spaces"”both topical and geographic. The "either or"¯ attitude to these struggles and policy engagements at global and other levels must therefore be avoided, and complementarities between the two processes recognised and strengthened. WSIS may need to be judged more from the processes that it has set into motion than what it has achieved substantively.

Global Policy on "Bridging the Digital Divide"¯

In addition to establishing the role of WSIS in formalising and legitimising a global policy discourse on the information society, it is necessary to also assess it on more specific outcomes. In journalistic shorthand, WSIS has come to be associated with two basic issues: bridging the digital divide and Internet governance.

The digital divide issue in its broadest scope includes a whole swathe of issues implicated in the gap between those who seem to be benefiting from the emerging information society and those who seem to be left behind. Many of these issues"”from the different approaches to software production, to telecom access models for free or affordable connectivity, open access to information, capacity building, international telecommunication costs, R&D for affordable hardware, technology transfer on preferential terms, and the role of the state and public policy in the information society, to community based ICT initiatives"”were discussed at WSIS, and they find mention in one form or the other in the outcome documents.

In its narrow conception, the issue of "bridging the digital divide"¯ was seen in terms of financing the ICT infrastructure and other basic concomitant requirements for an inclusive information society in the South. Some least-developed countries, especially from Africa, expected countries of the North to commit specific financial assistance for laying ICT infrastructure in their countries. This did not happen. Governments of the North are mostly wary of making funding commitments at United Nations summits, and, even if they agree on the basic proposition for specific funding, they prefer unilateral commitments or work through exclusive clubs like the G-8. However, WSIS failed even to establish the context and the rationale for considering ICTD financing at a level different from regular development financing. This was a huge failing of WSIS.

As an information and communication infrastructure that represents an entirely new basis for organising a whole range of social and economic processes, new ICTs have to be seen as an essential public infrastructure. ICT financing therefore must follow a different logic than most economic goods and services. The fact however is that the same infrastructure that is seen by some as a potentially "equalising field"¯ for faster development with greater equity and social justice among countries and among sections of the society, is also seen by others as the economic infrastructure around which a new set of comparative advantages have to be concretised for protecting their economic, social and political dominance. The question of whether "basic connectivity"¯ and basic ICT capacities constitute a normal economic service, that should be subject to market forces, or whether they qualify strongly to be considered public goods that are best produced by public funds and provisioned in a [way that does not produce rivalries] and non excludable manner has not been discussed, much less sorted out, at WSIS.

This should, however, not come as a surprise since this basic issue is still strongly contested in ICT policy spaces in countries of both the South and the North. Two examples of such contestation are provided here, one each from the South and the North. In India, the broadband project of the state of Andhra Pradesh to connect all villages on a regulated per-connection price of $2.30 per month recently ran into problems with telecom regulators. The issue has since been sorted out. Similar problems have occurred earlier with some other developmental projects in India innovating affordable or free connectivity solutions. In the United States, many state governments have threatened to bring in legislation to prevent municipalities from providing public connectivity systems. More than 300 municipalities in the United States have such public connectivity provision.

As with connectivity, other information society issues like software models, bottom-up media alternatives and easier access to content are going through similar basic and far-reaching contestations and transformations. It is unfortunate that the dominant interests"”governments and multinationals of the North"”apart from not discussing the public goods paradigm for basic IS infrastructure requirements, were able to keep the important issue of intellectual property rights and freer access to knowledge out of the WSIS.

All these issues need to be articulated and advocated at both global and local levels, and the momentum generated by the WSIS on these or related issues needs to be carried forward by interested actors. This brings forth the twin needs for optimising the WSIS follow-up process, especially from a Southern point of view; the role of civil society, and the need for strengthening South-South collaborations, for further developing pro-people and pro-development information society paradigms and relating these to real policy options.

For the last 10 years, the United States and the European Union have been conducting formal annual dialogues on information society issues; it is geo-politically important that the countries of the South, and civil society, also engage continuously to discuss and, if possible, develop common positions on information society issues.

Information Society and Global Governance

WSIS took place at a time when United States-led interests have been very active in undermining United Nations organisations and such relatively democratic forums of global governance. The growing intolerance of global capital for public policy regimes has been both a strong motivator as well as an ally in this process. These dominant forces conspired in many ways at WSIS to undermine the political legitimacy of global governance structures. At one level, there was a consistent attempt to keep as many substantial issues out from the discussions as possible"”using varied excuses, from claims that some of these issues were "legitimately"¯ in the purview of other multi-lateral forums (intellectual property rights the World Intellectual Property Organisation and telecommunication agreements with the World Trade Organisation) to assertions that the summit lacked the political authority to "direct"¯ the United Nations system and its entities towards one direction or the other and that these entities should be left to "act as they deem fit."¯ At another level, the role of private sector"”as a supposed leader of information society"”was pushed in very questionable ways into various governance arrangements.

It was because of such an attitude of the United States-led governments of the North that a summit that had one of the widest mandates came out with very weak outcomes. And, except in the area of Internet governance, it has left very weak follow-up mechanisms. Under much pressure from developing countries, United States-led countries of the North budged only so much as to look into the possibility of changing the mandate of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Commission on Science and Technology for Development to include follow-up on "information society"¯ issues. It is significant to note that in the Millennium Development Goals + 5 Summit as well, "information society"¯ is dealt with under the section on science and technology. It is ironic that all the conceptual progress made in the last decade from seeing ICTs as merely another set of technologies to understanding their society-wide impact as a complex and far-reaching socio-economic phenomenon has been nullified through such exercises. It is not that countries of the North do not understand the significance of information society changes; they certainly do. For example, the European Union has a very ambitious information society program, and an information society commission, or a similar body, is one of the institutional arrangements that is recommended to the countries aspiring to join the European Union. However, the countries of the North are not enthusiastic about relatively democratic and representative global governance structures like the United Nations having a strong role in "governing"¯ the emerging information society. They prefer more exclusive arrangements"”privileged membership groups like the G-8 or other systems that represent dominant geo-political interests like some private sector led arrangements. The existing regime of Internet governance is one such system. WSIS could not change the present regime though some significant processes of possible changes have been set in motion. This became possible because on this one issue"”where some unilateral exercise of power by the United States, for example, its control over the DNS root zone file [the master file of Domain Name System which directs the logical flow of data on the Internet], was unacceptable even to the normally amenable European nations"”the European Union broke ranks with the United States in the last stages of the negotiation.

Though the present Internet governance regime remains unchanged as of now, the tough negotiations that ensued after the European Union break-away have ensured that some processes have been put in motion by the summit which will examine various aspects related to internationalization of political oversight over the present technical and logical management functions of Internet governance. Another significant gain is the setting up of a multi-stakeholder Internet Governance Forum (IGF) that will debate and present recommendations on various public policy issues related to Internet governance. Governments, civil society and the private sector will participate on an equal footing in this forum, or so it appears from the reading of the summit outcome documents, and the precedent in a similar body, Working Group on Internet Governance, which had contributed to the WSIS process. IGF will be a significant new age institution"”an organisation that is a true multi-stakeholder partnership dealing with some very significant and substantive global governance issues.

WSIS and Multistakeholderism

The concept of multi-stakeholderism [multiple stakeholders] in the WSIS remained controversial. While WSIS saw a greater official role for civil society and the private sector than any other global governance forum ever before, there are two significant aspects of this issue worth taking note of. One, that often the presence of civil society seemed to provide a cover for a greater private sector role in the WSIS, and in the information society discourse generally. Two, the accent on multi-stakeholderism was at times used to further undermine legitimate global governance bodies like those of the United Nations, and thus played to the designs of the United States-led governments of the North. In fact, civil society from the South was also often more interested in "showcasing"¯ ICT for development initiatives at the summit rather than in contesting important issues taken up by the summit. A new class of ICT for Development NGOs seem to be so taken up with "looking for real solutions in cooperation with all actors"¯ that this multi-stakeholderism often comes at the expense of engaging with purposeful advocacy for more structural changes. The need for such engagements, as discussed above, may be more rather than less relevant in case of an emerging information society.

However, the gains for civil society in terms of multi-stakeholder platforms for global governance are real and significant, even if WSIS was perhaps the most apolitical summit ever, generally, as also in terms of civil society's role. One of the problems, as stated earlier, was that civil society that converged at WSIS came from too diverse a background. For some, human rights were the basic issue at stake; and for others WSIS was more about media and communication. Still others were looking at vast socio-economic opportunities for developing countries. For many, governments were the prime enemy; for others, like those concerned with development potential of ICTs, they were a necessary partner. Altogether, the range of backgrounds, interests and opinions were too wide for the civil society to present a strong political front at WSIS. Probably, it was due to the fragmented and de-politicised nature of the WSIS that progress could be made on the issue of multi-stakeholderism in global governance. What is significant is that since this procedural gain in global governance has been made, the WSIS precedent will always be useful to push for a greater role for civil society in the more politically contested global governance spaces like WTO, WIPO and disarmament negotiations, and issues like cultural diversity, environment and media. It is also necessary for all actors"”and civil society needs to take a lead in this"”to develop connections between these arenas of global policy and those that are more directly dealt with as information society issues. Information society issues are by their very definition society-wide issues, and thus cut across all other arenas. In fact the information society discourse provides the opportunity for advocating and leading meaningful positive changes in many areas of global policy and governance.

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