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Failure and Success at WSIS

12 Jul 2004

The negotiations at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in December 2003 produced mixed results. On the downside, a mutually convenient alliance of powerful governments blocked action to tackle the erosion of civil and human rights in electronic space; the United States watered down support for development-friendly, free, and open-source software; and community-driven approaches to building access to and use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) got barely a mention. But other areas might, in time, yield modestly positive results: the call to reroute huge volumes of Southern Internet traffic internally instead of via the United States; the idea of an open archive for scientific research; and the development of regional strategies for the information society.

What is difficult to explain is the failure of wealthy governments to act decisively on the primary motivation for the summit—the fear that the “digital divide” is reinforcing educational, income and health divides instead of alleviating them. No new mechanisms were designed to close these gaps; and a decision on the Digital Solidarity Fund demanded by poorer countries was postponed (rather than rejected outright) only in order to prevent a collapse of the summit. A fuller explanation emerges when WSIS is viewed in its historical context, as the intersection of two global debates—about the “information society” and the “communication society”—that for several decades have unfolded in parallel, seldom intersecting. WSIS witnessed the dying moments of one, but the other raises hope for the future.

The “official” debate on the information society (then called the “post-industrial society”) dates to the early 1970s. Then, academics demonstrated that information workers had become the largest block of workers in wealthy countries, that an “intellectual technology” infrastructure was emerging alongside industrial infrastructure, and that increasing numbers of goods were, in fact, “packaged information”. These insights pre-dated the explosion in ICTs and offered several different strategic models for taking full advantage of the trend, from state-led investment to market-led approaches. This is interesting for two reasons. First, it gives the lie to “technology determinists” who argue that technological innovation drove what later became known as the information society, pointing to a more complex process in which the growing role of information provoked the revolution in technology. Second and more importantly, however, it reminds us that there are more ways to build an information society than the purely market-driven one; indeed, it reminds us that there are many conceivable information societies, and that the way we choose to construct them will leave a deep imprint on the kinds that result.

Only in the mid-1990s did the information society agenda narrow to its current form, with the use of the term by the European Union to launch its efforts to compete with the Global Information Infrastructure of the United States. In the political drive to privatize and liberalize, the corporate sector was to be the main actor, with governments merely playing a facilitating role. WSIS uncritically adopted this vision, and because of its inherent limitations WSIS lacked the inspiration and the innovation it needed to achieve its goals.

Indeed, this model has reached its limits. In 2002, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reported that the growth rate in new telephone lines (still the basic means for people to access the information society) had for the first time “plunged”, and that, with half the world’s telecom operators in private hands, most of the “easy” privatizations had already occurred.[1] Moreover, there is growing evidence that, with pent-up demand among the middle classes and commercial entities largely satisfied, the market on its own is incapable of delivering services to the mass of people with less income. A narrow profit-driven agenda and the absence of effective universal-service policies leave the majority of poorer people with little prospect of joining this information society. WSIS failed to set up, let alone finance, the Digital Solidarity Fund mainly because of the refusal of powerful governments to deviate from the prescribed model that has served their corporations so well, and to consider alternative paradigms for development.

All may not be lost, however, because this information society agenda was met in Geneva by another, broader, agenda.

Also in the 1970s, the world for the first time debated the role of communication in society, embracing such matters as media governance, freedom of expression and human rights, spectrum and satellite use, journalism ethics and news, and cultural diversity. For a decade, the halls of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) resounded with the heated arguments of governments trapped in Cold War rhetoric, in the end achieving little. But concerns raised by this compromised effort did not disappear. In the two decades since, many in civil society have grown worried about the concentration of media ownership and its focus on profits, the ever-lengthening duration of copyright and exceptionally powerful criminal laws to enforce it, the commercialization of knowledge creation, and a host of related issues.

Many among the thousands of NGOs converging on Geneva in December 2003 brought these issues to WSIS, arguing that it is impossible to truly debate an information society without considering who owns information, who controls its production and dissemination, and whose interests that information ultimately serves. Civil society demanded that these issues also be put on the table. When they were refused, they produced their own Civil Society Declaration, containing the beginnings of an alternative vision of an information society that truly puts people first, that holds that information and communication are inseparable, and that points to alternative ways of achieving this.[2]

Of course, it is somewhat unfair to criticize WSIS for not tackling these issues. Neither powerful governments nor the ITU ever intended it to address such broad concerns, no matter how genuine. Key changes to the ways knowledge is accessed, to the diversity of the audiovisual sector or to cultural creativity, for example, are often wrought in the small print of World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements, World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) conditionality, the arcane language of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), or endless technical meetings of the ITU. There exists no forum for all stakeholders to openly debate these issues, to fully explore their implications, to allow society as a whole into decisions that will deeply affect our future. Civil society had no choice but to bring the issues to WSIS—a fact appreciated by many sympathetic governments.

This side-door entry into WSIS raises the question of where this valuable debate can now reconvene. The second phase of WSIS is unlikely to offer an opportunity to rehearse the broader questions. But perhaps momentum built up at WSIS can be carried forward, on one hand, deeper into civil society thinking through, for example, the World Social Forum; and, on the other hand, toward different transnational governance forums and processes. Among others, the proposed UNESCO convention on cultural diversity may offer a useful platform to collaborate with like-minded governments, while the ongoing WTO negotiations around audiovisual sectors may provide an opportunity to articulate alternatives to the market approach.

In the medium term, progress will depend largely on the capacity of civil society and others to develop credible, realistic alternatives to the current paradigms for building an information and communication society.

Seán Ó Siochrú is a media and communication writer, activist and consultant, and is a spokesperson for CRIS (Communication Rights in the Information Society; see www.crisinfo.org). He was a member of the WSIS Civil Society Bureau and director of the World Forum on Communication Rights held at the same time as WSIS.

An extended version of this article is forthcoming, tentatively titled “Will the real WSIS please stand up? The historic encounter of the ‘information society’ and the ‘communication society’”, in Gazette: The International Journal for Communication Studies, Vol. 66, Nos. 3/4, June/July 2004.


[1] International Telecommunication Union (ITU), World Telecommunication Development Report: Reinventing Telecoms, ITU, Geneva, 2002.

[2] www.geneva2003.org/wsis/index_c01_1_02.htm.