Mocking the digital divide

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) held in Geneva from 10 to 12 December 2003 was the first international summit to focus on the global information and communication system. Ironically, the presence of 54 heads of government at the summit, including contingents from all the countries of Southasia, failed to attract much attention in the region's mass media. With a total of 10,808 participants at the summit and 176 countries signing the official declaration, the organisers hailed it as a historic step to bridge the digital divide. The reality, however, is more complex.

The WSIS traces its roots to 1998 when the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) resolved to take steps to place the prospect of holding such a summit on the agenda of the United Nations Administrative Committee on Coordination. In 2001, the UN General Assembly asked the ITU to assume leadership for the preparation of the WSIS. According to the terms of the UN General Assembly resolution, the aim of the WSIS was to bring together governments, non-governmental organisations, civil society entities, industry leaders and media representatives to shape the future of the global information society. The WSIS was officially aimed at harnessing the potential of information and communication technology (ICT) to promote the development goals of the UN General Assembly. It was to frame policies as well as practical measures to bridge the digital divide between rich and poor countries. A pre-summit press release stated that the WSIS would focus on how to close the 'digital divide' in key areas of connectivity and computerisation.

The summit in Geneva was the culmination of the first leg of a two-phase process which began over two years ago, involving international conferences at the regional level as well as preparatory committee meetings at the global level. The two years of preparatory meetings concluded in November 2003, with the advanced capitalist countries and third world countries holding conflicting views on how to bridge the 'digital divide' (The second phase of WSIS is scheduled to be held in Tunis from 16 to 18 November 2005). Political wrangling threatened the success of the summit to the extent that, as a last ditch effort, an extra preparatory session was called immediately preceding the summit to salvage the situation. The major points of discord included issues of funding, internet governance, the role of communication media in society, the limits to intellectual property rights and issues relating to copyright and free software.

The question of funding was a major cause for controversy. Senegal, leading an African delegation, had suggested that the United Nations develop a "digital solidarity fund" to finance IT projects in third world countries. Other suggestions included a token contribution of one dollar from every purchase of a computer software package or network equipment to the fund, taxing international telephone calls and the commercial use of the radio frequency spectrum. The United States and other Western countries, however, opposed any suggestion of UN involvement, preferring to channel aid for such projects through existing development schemes, or by establishing an environment in which the private sector could develop the needed infrastructure—for instance through deregulation. The European Union also proposed a "digital solidarity agenda" which, however, did not include any commitment to funding.

Another contentious topic that came up for discussion was inter-net governance. Governance of the internet includes issues like spam (unsolicited advertisements and unwanted messages), cybernetic crimes, security, taxes, privacy issues, etc. However, the issue became reduced to the question of Domain Name Systems (DNS) and Internet Protocol Space allocation. The internet is currently managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is formally a private non-profit California based corporation, created in response to a call by US government officials. In June 1998, the US Department of Commerce and an inter-agency task force responded to concerns about DNS with the 'Statement of Policy on the Privatisation of Internet Domain Naming System'. This called for the creation of a private non-profit corporation to take over the DNS. Soon an international group, meeting in secret, formed ICANN as a non-profit corporation with an international board of directors.

It is ICANN that manages the Internet Protocol Space allocation, domain names and root server system functions, without which the internet cannot function. It does not, however, have control over content or security. ICANN is popular with the US and the EU owing to its free market orientation and commitment to the values of commerce and free speech, and more importantly, the fact that the US itself maintains a direct influence over ICANN's activities.

The very fact that the US is basically in control of the internet emerged to be a matter of concern with the international community, particularly in view of the lack of accountability and transparency of ICANN. There is also a perception among various countries that effective control by the US of the country code system and the generic top level domain names restricts each country's sovereign right over its own space on the internet. Consequently, there emerged a strong movement, particularly among third world countries for international control over the internet, with calls for a recognised international body to take over its management. Supporters of global governance contended that the internet should be administered by a governmental body with uniform standards for security and better access for poorer countries. Such efforts were led by China and Brazil, which called for the UN to regulate the internet, and were endorsed by Syria, Egypt, Vietnam, South Africa, Russia, India and Saudi Arabia.

Western countries, however, opposed any such move on the grounds that this would give more power to governments and would politicise technical decisions, which could affect the free flow of information. Defending the status quo, ICANN's president, Paul Twomey, argued that the net represented a partnership between various stakeholders, of which world governments were only a single component, others being the business, engineering and technical communities.

A major obstruction to the spread of information technology and particularly computers to the third world is the high cost of basic software like the Microsoft Windows package. However, a switchover to free and open source software like Linux, which can be updated or modified by anyone, helped by a global community of programmers, would ease the financial burden in this regard. Here again, differences of opinion reflected a North-South divide, with allegations that the delegates from the United States and the European Union were spokesmen for proprietary software. However, the draft for the WSIS declaration itself saw a shift, in principle, from an outright "support" for open-source software for third world countries to merely "promoting awareness" about "different software models, and the means of their creation, including proprietary, open-source and free software".

The other controversies in the two years of con-ferencing prior to the summit were also resolved in last minute efforts before the WSIS. An understanding was reached on putting off decisions on issues regarding funding and internet governance. The final declaration of principles titled "Building an Information Society: A Global Challenge in the New Millennium", signed at Geneva stressed the importance of the private sector in the development of the internet and called on the UN Secretary General to set up a working group on internet governance, incorporating governments, the private sector and civil society to frame proposals for the governance of the internet by 2005.

As regards funding, the plan of action advocated that developing countries increase their efforts to attract private investments for ICT through the creation of conducive investment environments. A review of the adequacy of existing financial mechanisms by a task force, under the auspices of the UN Secretary General, should be complete by December 2004, and submitted to the second phase of WSIS in 2005, where the feasibility of creating a voluntary Digital Solidarity Fund is to be considered.

The official declaration is in fact seen to strongly support neo-liberal policies and with the global media system being intertwined with the neo-liberal global capitalist eco-nomy, there are allegations that talk of digital divide and knowledge dissemination is used to justify the continued use of information to protect and advance the interests of global capital. Eduardo Doryan, the Special Representative of the World Bank to the UN, addressing the WSIS delegates, stated that experiences over the past 10 years have shown that national policies fostering effective competition for inclusive access are the most powerful instruments to reduce the digital divide. He emphasised the World Bank's commitment to supporting such efforts so as to deepen and broaden reform and development pertaining to this sector. A memorandum of understanding was also signed between the World Bank and ITU. The ITU Secretary-General, Yoshio Utsumi, observed that, "These partnerships are important first steps toward achieving the goals of the summit, which aim to ensure that the benefits of ICTs are available to all, not just a privileged few".

David Gross, the US State Department's Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy and leader of the US delegation to the summit, pointed out that the US believed that developing countries needed to focus first on improving the rule of law and their commitment to free-market economics before launching into internet projects.

As critics point out, the WSIS was clearly not just about making IT available to poorer countries, but also about selling them equipment and software, privat-isation of national communication industries, invest-ment and infrastructure, and maintaining power over the internet. Allegations of the summit helping to serve the interests of the telecommunication industry appear to be supported by the introductory paragraph of the Plan of Action, which calls for advancing the achieve-ment of internationally agreed development goals by promoting the use of ICT based products, networks, services and applications. WSIS appears to have been an opportunity for massive corporate sales promotion to the third world. The acronym ICT4D has conventionally been used to refer to the use of information and communication technology for development, through better governance (e-governance), more transparency and easier access to information on government policies, programmes and performance, and for ensuring better social services. The ICT4D hall at the summit, however, resembled a trade show, featuring stands from various corporates demonstrating their latest technology.

Hopes that WSIS would address a wide range of information and communication issues received a major setback. The digital divide is merely a symptom of the inequality that already exists between the advanced capitalist countries and those of the third world. Building a people-centred, inclusive and development oriented information society cannot be achieved by focusing merely on providing the countries of the third world with the technical means of participating in the digital revolution. Of more significance in this limited context is the need to create the necessary conditions to facilitate the effective use of ICT. Prospects for the development of the marginalised and poorer sections of society through access to new information technologies appear remote, given the basic obstacles like access to education, electricity supply, and cost of equipment. UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, in his opening address stressed that the so called 'digital divide' is actually several divides, a technological divide in infrastructure, a language divide with most content being in English, a gender divide for women in many countries, and a commercial divide where e-commerce reaches only some. In countries like India, it is not only technical rigidities, but also socio-economic distinctions of class, caste, gender, education, rural-urban differences etc, which limit communication. As the information society relies on skill and knowledge networks, with the existing inequalities there is every possibility of entrenching the gap between the different sections of society.

The Geneva phase of WSIS had in reality witnessed bland statements by political leaders on the potential of the internet and the need to expand its benefits to all. The ambitious calls to expand the benefits of IT to the poorer countries of the world did not include any specific detail as to the measures to be taken towards this end. The separate declaration issued by civil society participants reflected their disillusionment with the WSIS. Civil society participants who had been invited to work alongside governments and the private sector maintained that they had been marginalised and excluded from meetings. The last round of preparatory talks was totally closed to civil society. Ultimately civil society delegates were only able to prevent a backsliding on such issues as human rights and freedom of expression. Inclusion of references to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the final documents of the WSIS had been strongly opposed by some govern-ments. Freedom of expression, particularly, turned out to be a contentious issue with countries like China, Egypt and Vietnam being reluctant to see the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the WSIS declaration. On the other hand the United States and the European Union perceive free speech to be a fundamental principle of the information society. The final declaration, however, affirmed Article 19 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights. The disillusionment of civil society groups with the process found expression in the declaration "Shaping Information Societies for Human Needs", which focuses on the themes of social justice and people-centred sustainable development, and was in effect a critique of the techno-centric vision of the official declaration.

WSIS could have been an opportunity to raise critical issues regarding the larger questions of information and communication, and the underlying causes for the digital divide, as well as issues regarding media ownership, structure, content and access. Weaker sections of society are becoming more and more marginalised, with fewer programmes covering their concerns and lesser opportunities to make their voices heard. However, official preparatory processes, as well as civil society consultations focused largely on computers and the internet, ignoring the enormous implications of mass media for society. In fact, there had even been divisions on whether or not the media itself is a stakeholder in the information society. It is also interesting to note that there were no references to the earlier struggles for a New International Information Order (NIIO) by third world countries. This had-once upon a time been a part of the broader struggle to address the global economic inequality, which was seen to have been a legacy of colonialism. This campaign, particularly within UNESCO, gradually faded out in the midst of political conflicts and controversies, and the onslaught of globalisation. As far as the third world is concerned, WSIS – Geneva seems to have been a re-enactment of those summits and conferences of the 1970s and 80s which focused on NIIO.

Ironically, the mass media in Southasia for its part, seemed oblivious to the WSIS itself, let alone the wider questions involved.

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Himal Southasian