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A major report that reveals how vulnerable the internet as we know it is, has just been published in French and Spanish by two global civil society organisations.

The annual report, called Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch), was released in November by the Association for Progressive Communications and Dutch-funder Hivos. GISWatch 2009 is entitled Access to online information and knowledge – advancing human rights and democracy. The full publication is now available in French, and an abridged version in Spanish.

The report shows that accessing information and knowledge online is not as simple as switching on a computer, and that the wealth of information available on the internet today is by no means guaranteed for tomorrow.

Whether it is a new legislation designed to control online content, the blocking of websites, or restrictive copyright laws that prevent poor nations and people with disabilities from accessing information, what was once a free and open space for sharing knowledge, is in many ways being shut down. As one author puts it, the information society involves a “continuing tug-of-war between the forces of authoritarianism and democratisation.”

Key issues at stake

Key issues impacting on access to online information and knowledge are unpacked in the report, including discussions on intellectual property rights, knowledge rights, open standards and access to educational materials and libraries.

The report also offers an institutional overview and a reflection on indicators that track access to information and knowledge. 48 country reports analyse the status of access to online information and knowledge in countries as diverse as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Mexico, Switzerland and Kazakhstan, while regional overviews offer a bird’s eye perspective on regional trends in North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Europe.

Mapping rights: “cultural rights” in Mexico, “pollution victims’ rights” in Switzerland, “rights of the over-indebted” in Ivory Coast

For the first time, there is an innovative section that visually maps global rights as seen through the lens of Google searches, as well as a visual analysis of Twitter messages sent out during the recent Iranian political crisis. The two research projects presented are attempts at web studies where the tool used is part of the analysis, with some fascinating results.

For instance, as seen through Google search results, it can be argued that countries have very distinctive concerns when it comes to rights. These range from “cultural rights” in Mexico, “pollution victims’ rights” in Switzerland, the “right to education in a native sign language” in Finland, to “rights of the over-indebted” in Ivory Coast.

No place for complacency: The open internet is closing

“The value of a publication like this – to cast shadows, illuminate differences, pockets of challenges and changes – is once again highlighted in the reports collected here,” said GISWatch editor Alan Finlay. “Not everyone benefits from an open information society. For those that do, this is becoming more and more relative. In a number of cases, the authors showed a lot of courage in writing what they did, given the repressive environments they work in.”

Ironically, the terrain of access to online information has knowledge barriers in itself: there are pockets of specialisation beyond the everyday discussions of most people. This means that fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, the right to participate and the freedom to learn and to know are seldom covered by the mainstream media.

GISWatch 2009 aims to demystify the terrain, while challenging the complacency of those who assume that their right to access, use and enjoy the content they find on the internet will always be secured.

Global Information Society Watch 2009, published in print and online by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and Dutch development organisation Hivos, collects the perspectives of ICT academics, analysts, activists and civil society organisations from across the globe.

GISWatch in French was made possible thanks to the Swedish International Cooperation Agency (Sida), and in Spanish by the Swiss Agency For Development and Cooperation (SDC).

Responding to GISWatch 2009, several prominent commentators had this to say:

“The Global Information Society Watch has taken up the difficult and
incredibly important task of understanding the the converging issues of
freedom of expression, access to knowledge and information, and digital
rights in a global, comparative context. The report is a tremendous resource
for monitoring these developments and for thinking about how to build out
rights agendas for the information society at the national and international
levels. Many of these issues have come to the fore in policy conversations
in the past decade, but researchers, advocates, and policy-makers have lacked
a framework for mapping and comparing them globally. Now they have one.”
Joe Karaganis, Social Science Research Council

“I particularly liked the measuring section. Without appropriate indicators and indices how can we measure progress? The knowledge economy needs indices that are both qualitative and quantitative. Keeping human rights and human development central in the indicators is particularly refreshing. It gives ‘soul’ to the measurement. This in my view is one of most balanced access to information publications in the post-WSIS period.”

Dr Buhle Mbambo-Thata, Executive Director, University of South Africa (UNISA) Library Services


Country reports in GISWatch 2009

Africa (16): Algeria, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe
Americas (10): Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay
Asia-Pacific and the Middle East (15): Bangladesh, India, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Republic of Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Occupied Palestinian Territory, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan
Europe (7): Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Switzerland *****
For more information contact
Alan Finlay
GISWatch editor
Skype id: Alan_Finlay
Johannesburg, South Africa
Interviews can be arranged with authors. ******

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