By Willie Currie GENEVA, Switzerland,Published on
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A cluster of World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) implementation meetings is taking place in Geneva from May 14 to 25. Part of the APC crew is there, ensuring that “the strong development orientation” promised by organising agencies goes beyond paper. Read APC input to the informal consultation between the International Communication Union and civil society on the participation of all relevant stakeholders.
APC welcomes the commitment of the ITU in resolution 141 to explore the participation of all relevant stakeholders in the activities of the Union related to WSIS and to establish a working group to study the matter. This is a very important development and is one of the positive outcomes of WSIS.
Clearly, such a step is breaking new ground. However, given the differences in institutional cultures, this is no doubt likely to be accompanied with a degree of anxiety in some quarters that greater participation by civil society could have some negative effects on the functioning of the ITU. The experience of WSIS itself provides positive experiences that can be built upon in addressing these fears. A working arrangement was created in which civil society respected the rights of governments to negotiate with one another within formal protocols and governments, in turn, were open to civil society making written and oral representations on the topics under discussion. This arrangement enhanced the outcomes of WSIS and correctly understood the nature of the digital revolution as one in which many different groups had a valid stake with respect to policy governing the information and communications environment of the planet. However, in spite of this, civil society organisations and individuals face a continual struggle to get their voices heard in global policy spaces and can not take the issue of ‘voice’ or multi-stakeholder participation for granted or assume that their role in innovation or productive contributions to the design of governance arrangements or formation of standards will be acknowledged.
Yet, the key features of this new networked information society demonstrate that multi-stakeholder participation and activity has been integral in the shaping and building of that very information society and contributing to its innovativeness. The rise of the networked, computer-mediated communications environment placed the means of information and communication production in the hands of millions of people and is rapidly impacting on the industrial model of information production in which states and corporations have hitherto controlled the means of information production This, as Yochai Benkler1 has observed, has the following implications:
1.The material barrier that pushed much of our information environment through proprietary, market-based strategies is currently being challenged through the means of information production being in the hands of many people, who are working within non-market, non-proprietary motivations and organisational forms, e.g. the impact of bloggers on industrial forms of journalism and the organisation of political and economic cultures, the potential impact of wireless forms of infrastructure on the last mile and YouTube on media, transparency and advertising.
2.Non-market production has assumed much greater significance. Individuals can reach and inform millions around the world. Previously such reach was not available either though market or state organisations, e.g. Google searches aggregate the uncoordinated actions of a diverse range of organisations and individuals with a wide range of motivations – both market and non-market, state-based and non-state.
3.The rise of effective large scale cooperative efforts – peer production of information, knowledge and culture, e.g. from the emergence of free and open-source software to peer production of knowledge goods like encyclopaedias, news and commentary.
This expansion of the networked information society can pose severe challenges to market organisations and states that operate on the old centralised or industrial model of organisation and control. It is not easy to adapt to what is happening at such a rapid rate. Civil society organisations and individuals live in this new networked information society already – in their forms of organisation, agility and culture. To some it appears that an organization like the ITU, in spite of its contributions to advancing the information society, is not fully integrated into the networked information society.
It seems to retain the features of the previous industrial information order as an un-necessarily rule-bound, bureaucratic institution and this stands in the way of realizing its leadership potential. Yet, on the other hand there is also recognition of the role of the distributed, networked and collaborative information environment and the importance of these new constituencies as evident in resolution 141.
Civil society recognises this and the value of the ITU’s work at the level of technical research and the international regulation of standards and spectrum. Civil society recognises the value of the data and analysis that ITU gathers, assesses and analyzes. We would, in fact, like to have greater access to ITU publications and information sources and to contribute to this body of analysis and knowledge. Civil society recognises the value of the work of ITU-D, in particular, as many of us work in the context of the developing world. If this were not so, we would not really be interested in engaging with the ITU.
Moving forward, I would like to highlight four steps that can be undertaken immediately by the ITU Secretary General while the working group gets on with its study. WSIS implementation is happening now and the issue cannot wait until 2010. The ITU SG could:
Establish a civil society liaison office with the task of interacting with civil society with respect to current membership options within the ITU, with respect to WSIS activities and with respect to civil society organisations and individuals who wish to become more involved in ITU’s work as collaborators and volunteers
Ensure all WSIS implementation activities in which ITU is involved operate on WSIS principles and effective multi-stakeholder participation – this means sharing the control and management of these activities with greater sensitivity to the needs of other stakeholders and not to let them function as promotional vehicles for existing ITU projects however critical they might be.
Take steps, perhaps in conjunction with CONGO, to make a broader range of ITU publications available for free download to civil society organisations and individuals who are actively involved in the information and communications policy, regulatory and technical environment.
Request civil society organisations and individuals involved in WSIS implementation to nominate two people to become participant observers on the Resolution 141 working group. CONGO could undertake this task.