World Summit on the Information Society: Looking Back and Looking Forward: My Comments To a WSIS +10 Review Plenary

Posted on February 25, 2013

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These were the comments I made as an invited speaker on behalf of Civil Society at a review meeting for the World Summit on the Information Society. The meeting, the WSIS +10 Review was held in Paris, Feb. 25, 2013.

Ministers, Director General, Mr. Chair, Distinguished Panelists, Honoured Guests

I am honoured and delighted to have the opportunity to make some brief remarks to this panel as a member of Civil Society and as an academic and researcher concerned with Information Society issues.

Many things have changed since we as a group concerned with the future of the Information Society were together at the WSIS summits in Geneva (2003) and then in Tunis (2005).  Mobile’s were only beginning to be found in the Less Developed Countries of the world and the role of mobiles as an element in overall economic and social development was still a far off dream. Broadband itself was still somewhat exotic as a source of high capacity Internet.

What is perhaps most significant however, is how over this period of time, the Internet has become normalized, a routine part of life for billions and something that is taken for granted even as it has transformatively penetrated into a vast range of actions and behaviours and even arguably (and dangerously because so much of this is privatized and corporate controlled) into the very fabric our structures of thinking, our patterns of governance, our intimate behaviours.

Concepts and movements in support of  the multiple facets of digital “openness”–open archives, open data, open access were at the time of the WSIS meetings limited to programs and strategies for software development as in Free and Open Source Software;. various forms of social networking were largely still gleams in their developer’s eyes and no one could have imagined the types of transformations which have resulted from their widespread and almost instantaneous popularity including as a platform for mobilizing and aggregating actions in support of the common good including quite notably and not without some irony in our host country for the Tunis Summit.

More negatively issues of security and privacy on the Internet and their operational evil twins censorship and surveillance did not figure so prominently in those, perhaps simpler, times. And notions of cyberwar and the threats and counter threats of a new Cold War in cyberspace were only found in the realm of science fiction. And finally the draconian and in many cases unreasonable current positioning concerning copyright were still only in their infancy.

In Geneva and Tunis and very widely elsewhere at the time there was continuing discussion and concern about the Digital Divide, its origins, its impacts and the possible means for its resolution.  Currently there is very much less discussion on the Digital Divide to the point where reputable bodies including some attending the Review are claiming that the Digital Divide and issues of Digital Inclusion have been resolved  and most notably by the mobile revolution.

But it should be noted that the promise of mobiles as a means to fully access and participate in the Information Society is still denied to many because of a lack of infrastructure (including electricity), the cost of service, the cost of devices, physical limitations in being able to use the devices and overall through the evident difficulty in linking mobiles even where there is wide accessibility and use to effective strategies supportive of broad based social and economic development.

And of course, alongside this must be placed those still very large numbers in rural areas, among indigenous peoples, among the very poor in urban areas worldwide for whom access and use of mobiles for participation in Information Society benefits is still an impossible dream. The issue is especially significant I believe for indigenous people’s because of whose relationship with the land there is often a particular set of opportunities which effective use of ICTs presents.

Even while so many are deriving such immense benefits from the Internet and the fruits of the Information Society, countries around the world including Developed Countries such as my own Canada are shamefully cutting back on support to ensure that all those who wish it can access and use the Internet. In Canada for example roughly half of the roughly 20% not currently using the Internet regularly or some 3.5 millions Canadians have indicated that they are not currently using the Internet because of the cost of service or of the access devices, or because of a lack of training and our national government has just recently cut the only program that was addressing the needs of this population.

In my own area of academic and research interest, Community Informatics, we see repeated examples of technologies, and implementations of technologies and developmental programs which fail because of an unthinking approach to community needs, grassroots practices and existing community resources and a failure to engage communities and the grassroots as partners in their development and ICT implementation and use. Equally issues of linguistic diversity in the Information Society are if anything becoming more acute as insufficient attention is paid to the very real opportunities that the Internet presents for encouragement and support to minority languages and minority language speakers.

Also, it is well to reflect on the evident decline in attention being given to the Internet as a public good and the governance of the Internet in the public interest with the current triumphalism of those who wish to extend the ideology of private interests as the fundamental nature of the Internet. This is occurring even while there is an ever widening recognition of the role of the Internet as a basic and empowering platform through which the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in the Information Society of the present and the Knowledge Society of the future can be most effectively realized.

It should also be noted that many of the cross-sectoral issues such as climate change, sustainable development, environmental degradation even the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) themselves which, were discussed only in passing in the earlier WSIS have now become so prominent that attention must be paid and directly within the Information Society framework.  ICTs are becoming, in these areas as in so many others fundamental supports and enablers without which little effective action is possible including as providers of fresh opportunities and particularly when it is recognized that programmes and implementations designed around the use of ICTs at the grassroots level in these areas will strongly influence longer term success or failure.

The Internet has been a remarkable even an astonishing success and this success has provided the basis for vast and widespread evolution into an Information Society and now into the beginnings of a Knowledge Society.  With this success has come vast opportunities for gain of individual wealth, power and prestige.  Looking back, many of those in this room perhaps naively expected that the Internet because of its networked and decentralized nature, its intelligence distributed to the edges, its enabling of the peer-to-peer, would serve to resolve some of the on-going bases of social and economic inequality and unequal distribution of opportunity.

In fact, I think it is arguable and even becoming evident that the overall effect of the Internet has been quite the opposite.  The rise of the Internet not I believe coincidentally, has taken place alongside what economists are noting is the greatest increase in concentrations of wealth and power into the smallest number of hands in human history — and it seems unmistakeable that the Internet has been a significant contributor to this–with the Internet enabling in such a way as to further enrich the already wealth and to empower the already powerful.

While providing opportunities for many, those without such opportunities from the Internet have been left even further behind, and rather than widely distributing opportunities there seems to have been a hidden coding that favours the concentration — most evidently of wealth — a combination of a winner takes all and first mover advantages — operating and even extravagantly in some instances in favour of certain companies. certain individuals certain regions and certain countries.

And similarly to concentrations of wealth have come concentrations of societal and cultural influence so that certain voices (and languages, and to a degree the values which are associated with these) which in the past have been most influential have been made in the Internet enabled era even more influential.

Thus, looking forward I see that the issues of digital economic justice, digital equality and digital inequality as well as digital inclusion will develop alongside and partially displace issues of the digital divide as the primary pre-occupation to be addressed as we go forward to WSIS +10 and beyond in the task of building an Internet for all and an Internet that enables in the broadest public interest and towards the broadest possible public good.

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