Whose information is it?
Over 6,000 delegates from across the globe, representing governments, intergovernmental organisations, the private sector, civil society and the media, will gather in Geneva this week for the World Summit on the Information Society. AMMU JOSEPH examines some of the public interest issues.
THE Simputer, India's indigenous, open source, low-cost, hand-held, multi-lingual, multi-purpose computing device, may be showcased at the forthcoming World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The local invention, specifically designed and developed to take information technology to people on the have-not side of the notorious digital divide, has reportedly been submitted for a global award by the government of India. However, the Bangalore-based scientists and technologists behind what has been widely acclaimed as "one of the 10 technological innovations that could help the poor get rich" are unlikely to be at the summit, where the awards will be presented on December 10, at least partly because they received the information too late to reschedule work and make travel plans.
If information be the food of democracy, ours is clearly on a starvation diet. But for a drab page of bland officialese on the website of the Department of Telecommunications (Ministry of Communications and Information Technology), little information is available in the public sphere on the Indian government's perspective on and engagement with the first high-level global meeting to focus attention on the celebrated, if nebulous, "information society" and deal with critical issues relating to the use and dissemination of information and communications technologies (ICTs) in development policies and programmes. Information about the involvement of Indian civil society, private sector and media in the two year long process leading up to this first phase of the WSIS is equally scarce.
Yet, by most accounts, a number of critical issues of vital public interest are on the negotiation table at the WSIS. And several of them remained unresolved on the eve of the summit, scheduled to be held in Geneva from 10 to 12 December under the auspices of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the United Nations agency primarily responsible for the event. When a "resumed session" of the third meeting of the summit's preparatory committee (a.k.a. PrepCom3), held in September, concluded in mid-November, the entire text of both the documents slated to emerge from the summit the Draft Declaration of Principles and the Draft Plan of Action were still confined within the dreaded "square brackets" of UN conferences, which signify lack of consensus among member states. If yet another resumed session in the first week of December fails to iron out persistent differences on contentious issues such as intellectual property, security/privacy and, of course, the customary stumbling block of finances the three-day event may well go the Cancun way.
There is clearly more at stake here than the pious incantations in the disputed documents imply. But the apparent disinterest in the WSIS within India, despite the hype over the country's role in the global IT revolution, suggests that nothing of consequence will be gained or lost through what many obviously dismiss as yet another international jamboree. India-based UN agencies and personnel supposedly dealing with the event seem too unconcerned to even respond to repeated queries.
Even individuals and groups here attempting to make ICTs available and accessible to socially and economically disadvantaged communities and to use them for developmental purposes appear relatively indifferent to the event.
On the other hand, a large number of activists involved in information and communication issues in many other parts of the world, including Africa, Latin America and elsewhere in Asia, obviously believe that they must do all they can to ensure that the outcomes of the WSIS improve or, at the very least, do not exacerbate the existing digital divides between and within countries, between the North and the South, the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural, men and women, as well as other empowered and marginalised sections of various populations. Many of them have worked hard to reorient the WSIS process and move it from the technocratic, infrastracture-oriented perspective with which it began to a more people-centred concept of information societies that are inclusive, participatory, sustainable, equitable and just.
However, many of them are obviously disenchanted with the process in the run-up to the summit. A statement issued on behalf of "civil society" at the end of the November session of PrepCom3 identifies some of the major problem areas that currently impede progress. Among the essential conflicts among governments is the basic question of "how to correct imbalances in riches, imbalances of rights, imbalances of power, or imbalances of access". At present UN member states do not seem to agree on even the principle of a financial effort to overcome the so-called digital divide, although that was one of the main objectives of the summit process. Another struggle is over human rights, with governments apparently unable to agree on a commitment to basic human right standards, including the freedom of expression, as the basis for the information society. There are also ongoing disagreements over issues like the media's place and role in the information society, Internet governance, limited intellectual monopolies such as copyright, free software, security, and so on. According to the statement, "This underlines our assessment that there is a lack of a common vision."
Under the circumstances, the wide range of individuals and groups representing civil society in the much vaunted multi-stakeholder WSIS process have decided to stop providing inputs into the official documents, which now seem likely to represent the lowest common denominator among governments. Instead, they will present during the summit a 10-point Essential Benchmarks document outlining an ethical framework, on the basis of which the outcomes of the WSIS process and the commitment of all stakeholders to achieving its mandate can be assessed. This, they believe, will help focus action and decision-making in the lead up to the second phase of the summit in Tunis in 2005.
Special interest groups within the civil society category are also unhappy with the way their particular issues have or have not been represented in the WSIS documents. For example, gender activists, who have been consistently highlighting the importance of promoting women's empowerment through equal access to and active participation in the information society, have finally managed to salvage just one paragraph on the subject in the Draft Declaration of Principles.
The media caucus has expressed ""profound distress" over the refusal of governments to fully affirm Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the draft documents and the lack of agreement about designating the media as a stakeholder in the information society. Other media-watchers have been disappointed that the WSIS process missed an important opportunity to raise critical issues about North-South and rich-poor gaps in media ownership, content and access. Communication rights advocates have deplored "the absence, removal or dilution of positions on issues that are core to communication rights, in particular the sections on community media, intellectual property rights, Internet governance, `information security' and funding."
Community media groups, in turn, have expressed "deep dissatisfaction" with the outcome of PrepCom3, pointing out that the summit documents prioritise infrastructure for Internet connectivity while failing to address the fundamental barriers of electricity supply, literacy and equipment costs, which exclude the world's poorest people and communities from the so-called information society. According to them, the "traditional" media, particularly radio, remain the most widespread communications technologies. They stress that community-based communications media have a crucial role to play in enabling participation, strengthening cultural diversity, promoting gender equality and supporting a more just and equitable information society that includes the voices of the poor and the marginalised.
Issues relating to radio, in fact, illustrate some of the shadowy, if not sinister, processes that critics allege have been threatening to undermine the WSIS process all along. They also have direct relevance to current debates and developments relating to media policy in India.
For instance, despite the exponential growth in the number of radio frequencies available thanks to new technologies, there is an ongoing tug of war over the allocation of the spectrum. Countering severe pressure from neo-liberal policy makers and industry (not only media but telecommunications, including mobile telephony) to completely privatise and monetise the spectrum are those who are fighting to preserve and promote non-commercial use of the spectrum for public service, including public and community broadcasting.
According to a paper by Pradip Thomas for the campaign on Communication Rights in the Information Community (CRIS Campaign), "There is a need for civil society to monitor and resist any moves by governments to turn the radio spectrum, a public good, into a private commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder." As an alternative to the market-based model he advocates a `spectrum commons' model designed to produce a more democratic allocation of spectrum and premised on the principle that the spectrum should be regulated in the public interest and for public benefit.
This is reminiscent of the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court of India in 1995, which clearly affirmed that the airwaves belong to the public, not to the government nor, indeed, to the commercial private sector. Yet the Indian government is still fighting shy of honouring, let alone implementing, the judgment. It is obviously up to civil society in India to push the government to uphold the court's opinion on broadcasting rights. And, while they are about it, to pressurise the government to live up to its rhetoric by making more use of indigenous innovations like the Simputer, and local initiatives such as existing, successful experiments in community-run radio, telecentres, and so on, to begin the process of building an information society within the country that is inclusive, participatory, sustainable, equitable and just.
The primary value of events like the WSIS and the processes that precede and follow them is that they can serve as catalysts for public debate and action on vital issues that are or should be of public concern. As the November 14 civil society statement put it, "Someone has to take the lead; if governments won't do it, civil society will do it.(by) working together in local and global bottom-up processes and thereby shaping a shared and inclusive knowledge society." Even if civil society in India has missed the boat to WSIS I, it is not too late to set sail towards WSIS II.
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Official WSIS site:
Civil Society in the WSIS:
WSIS Gender Caucus:
Communication Rights in the Information Society:
NGO Gender Strategies Working Group:
The Association for Progressive Communications:
World Forum on Communication Rights:
The Global Knowledge Partnership:
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