Ten Reasons Why Social Justice Matters for Internet Governance

Posted on November 22, 2014


Ten Reasons Why Social Justice Matters for Internet Governance (Please add your own)

Social Justice” has been at the very heart of Internet Governance (IG) beginning with the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) among whose primary objectives was to find ways to use the technology power being unleashed by the digital and Internet revolutions to pursue traditional goals of social justice.

1. We, the representatives of the peoples of the world*, *assembled in Geneva from 10-12 December 2003 for the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society,* declare our common desire and commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life, premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

2. Our challenge* is to harness the potential of information and communication technology to promote the development goals of the Millennium Declaration, namely the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger; achievement of universal primary education; promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women; reduction of child mortality; improvement of maternal health; to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and development of global partnerships for development for the attainment of a more peaceful, just and prosperous world. We also reiterate our commitment to the achievement of sustainable development and agreed development goals, as contained in the Johannesburg Declaration and Plan of Implementation and the Monterrey Consensus, and other outcomes of relevant United Nations Summits.

That social justice has now largely fallen off the desktop of Internet Governance is less a matter of a resolution of the fundamental issues of social justice as articulated in the above than a symptom of the short attention spans and magpie-and-the-glittering-trinket perspectives of major donors and multilateral agencies.

In place of a serious addressing of the various issues concerning the relationship between social justice and Internet Governance we are repeatedly entertained at Internet Governance events (the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), ITU events, NetMundial, etc.) with the regular and ritualistic discussions of “Internet access” as though access itself was sufficient to achieve the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger; achievement of universal primary education; promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women among others. These discussions in fact, are a simply “going through the motions” as anyone who has ever attended any of these meetings will attest, since no resources or serious policy intent is ever intended or available as a follow-up and everyone involved knows this.

Most disappointingly only a very very few Civil Society organizations involved in the Internet Governance area have chosen to project issues of social justice into the Internet Governance arena. Even organizations with a long history of social justice advocacy and who in part build their current reputations on taking a position in support of social justice have effectively abandoned these areas while choosing to give their undivided attention and support to the important but already well-favoured areas of Human Rights and overwhelmingly to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly on and via the Internet. While this is disappointing it is probably quite predictable since large amounts of funding from foundations, national (particularly US and Swedish) bilateral funders and increasingly (Internet-associated) corporate funding is flowing in this direction.

That there is a direct correspondence of interest between “free expression on the Internet” and the free flow of ideas and the business models of the various corporate Internet giants along with the free market fundamentalism of those countries advocating “free markets/free flows of information” should not be too surprising. This isn’t to say that these matters are not significant, they are, but to ignore the rather more pressing issues of social justice in favour of the somewhat easier, trendier and more lucrative areas of free expression etc. is a major dereliction on the part of the relevant Civil Society organizations.

The equally ritualized and equally empty regular programs of “capacity building” as the major recommendation and outcome of the “Internet and Development” oriented discussions at these events simply leads to endless programs of “ambassadors”, “interns”,”champions” and “fellows” being trained to be (generally unpaid however with generous travel and accommodation expenses to one or another of the IG events held in high class hotels in exotic locations) elite (as “alumni”) camp-followers err spokespersons at their various national levels for the particular brand of Internet related ideologically tinged folderol into which they have been indoctrinated err… “trained” –a leg up certainly on the “reputation” track for the individuals so selected but of rather less obvious value in and for their respective local communities.

In fact, apart from the above, issues of “social justice” are actively discouraged from being included in the broader discussions of Internet Governance. As an example no discussion topic that even mildly alluded to areas of concern to social justice (apart from the above mentioned” access”) was approved for inclusion in the Internet Governance Forum in 2014 even as these issues are being increasingly raised more broadly in society including dare one say by no lesser radicals than the Pope and President Obama.

No discussions on the Internet and economic inequality; on the Internet and global taxation strategies and policy or more particularly tax avoidance by Internet associated companies many of whom are among the wealthiest companies in the world ; no discussions on the Internet as a driver of unemployment and under-employment and post-employee/precariat exploitation; few or no discussions on the reproduction of various social inequalities in the Internet world and so on. In fact, one senior official in the planning for the NetMundial meeting indicated that he would not allow the discussion “to be embarrassed” by allowing such issues to be raised even as the host government of Brazil was using precisely issues of social justice as the primary element of its campaign for re-election in Brazil’s national election.

Nevertheless it is even more important to be concerned about the inclusion of the broader issues of social justice in Internet Governance discussions as elsewhere, particularly now that the World Economic Forum, that bastion and spokesman for the global 1% is, with allies from associated governments and compliant civil society, attempting to insert itself directly into the core of Internet Governance activities through the NetMundial Initiative (NMI).

It is clear from the statements presented by the NMI that issues concerning social justice will not be of direct concern and equally that it is probably best that these issues not be addressed through the NMI givens its intentions to give corporations (including presumably those with the most direct interest in these matters) a direct role in framing the inputs to and outputs from the NMI, the precise nature of which has not as yet been identified. (The spectre of having Disney Corporation as a partner in creating NMI outputs on copyright, or Google and Amazon having a similar role with respect to issues concerning global taxation are among the areas of particular concern to some of the many NMI critics.) The JustNet Coalition alone among civil society organizations has objected strongly to this initiative (pointing along the way to how far Internet Governance-oriented civil society has strayed from what have been the defining issues for civil society globally).

Below please find 10 reasons why discussions of Internet Governance and ultimately the development of frameworks for Internet Governance must and ultimately will be fully attentive to issues of social justice. I will be doing a parallel and following blogpost pointing out why Internet Governance issues are of concern from a social justice perspective as well.

1. The rising significance of the Internet as the emerging platform for the global economy means that managing the Internet is very much on the global policy agenda and responding to the distributive outcomes of these challenges must be addressed including within the framework of Internet Governance. Rising income inequalities globally has coincided with the rise of the significance of the Internet and is almost certainly directly linked to the impact of the Internet on the entire range of economic and other activities. This is not currently being addressed in the context of Internet Governance.

2. Efforts to control global Internet-facilitated tax dodging err tax avoidance by Internet and other corporations will have significant global Internet Governance implications.

3. The direct impact of the Internet and Internet enabled companies(and other digital technologies) on employment, the skill and locational distribution of employment opportunities, employment practices, wage levels, gendered differentiations, and so on will need to be addressed in a global context. If not in the context of “Internet Governance”, then where?

4. There are visible crises in the practices of governance both in the evident decline in participation and overall engagement with representative democratic institutions (the “democratic deficit“) and the use of the Internet as a platform for challenging unrepresentative and “out of touch” governance institutions arising in large part because of concerns for social justice issues. These issues are leading to efforts in many jurisdictions to curtail the transfer of traditional practices of free expression and free association to the Internet. This represents an overall challenge to and responsibility for Internet Governance.

5. Following on from WSIS there are still significant “digital divides” including around infrastructure, cost, training and opportunity for use, language and so on for the now ubiquitous, unavoidable and necessary Internet. These are social justice issues that need to be addressed in the context of Internet Governance.

6. The rise of global “platform monopolies” in a variety of Internet application areas is having a direct impact on “Net Neutrality” as for example through zero subscription cost initiatives in many Less Developed Countries and elsewhere. This will have profound effects not only in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) related areas but also in national taxation policy among others. Net Neutrality and following this Platform Neutrality is (or should be) a central issue for Internet Governance.

7. Movements for social and environmental justice among others including the mass of ordinary citizens have been the targets of mass surveillance and privacy and this is becoming a significant issue. The achievement of regulations and controls ensuring individual and group privacy and controls on surveillance will require effective structures and processes of global Internet Governance.

8. Study after study is showing that traditional patterns of gender, ability, age and other bases of inequality are being reproduced in the Internet world. This issue remains to be seriously addressed in the context of Internet Governance.

9. Social justice is inextricably linked with human rights and human rights are increasingly being understood as a necessary element of Internet Governance. The deliberate avoidance of the social justice component of human rights represents an ideological choice and prejudice destructive of the legitimacy of efforts towards global Internet Governance.

10. The dominant position and direction for development within the Internet world is towards individualism and away from public supports and solutions/responses to social concerns. The “every person for him/herself” and away from broad-based public and social solutions in the areas of education, health, social support, pensions and others represents a fundamental restructuring of social values with an effective elimination of the social contract and the social safety net in countries globally. Current strategies and ideologies under-pinning many approaches to Internet Governance reflect such values.

There are many more links that can be made to demonstrate that social justice is an issue that must be addressed in the context of Internet Governance. The suppression of discussion of social justice matters in the context of Internet Governance is part of the broader efforts by those supportive of the Internet status quo to ensure that those forces currently in control of the Internet are not challenged. There is a clear intent as for example through the  NMI to ensure that the Internet as a global platform of which we all are users as well as builders is removed from democratic governance and turned over to elite and corporate management and control, ultimately to ensure that the Internet which should serve the interests of all is structured rather to serve the interests only of the few.

With none of the current or proposed Internet Governance frameworks or mechanisms even bothering to raise issues concerning social justice and with most of the traditional supporters of social justice matters active in the Internet Governance space including notably countries such as Brazil and South Africa and certain civil society organizations, choosing to studiously, if highly questionably, to ignore these issues how or where these issues will come forward remains a source of considerable and increasing tensions globally as the issues themselves become ever more acute.

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