The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) is a full United Nations Summit to be held 10-12 December 2003 in Geneva with a second meeting in Tunis in 2005. [Official Website]
Community media and other civil society organisations are organising a number of events to run alongside and contra to the WSIS which, they believe, fails to promote media diversity or engage with the question of fair access to the Information Society.
The Summit's stated objective is to address the inequalities that will arise as the world changes from an industrial to information-based society. Information is a powerful tool for economic and social development and the WSIS was announced as a platform for the UN, governments, the private sector along with civil society groups to contribute to bridging digital and knowledge divisions.
However the Civil Society grouping including many progressive electronic networks have severly criticised the process for failing to agree on a comittment to basic human right standards (most prominent in this case being the freedom of expression), as well as failing to properly include a development agenda and address issues such as media concentration, support for community media, internet governance, free software, and security. The stage is now set for a confrontation as the movement for media democracy and communication rights continues to gain pace.
A series of preparatory committees (PrepComs), planning for the WSIS have already taken place, but for civil society groups in particular, it has emerged from these PrepComs that the idea of the WSIS engaging in a wide range of information and communication issues has effectively been shattered. An agenda has surfaced that is plainly concerned with telecommunication and Internet issues relating to the vested interests of corporate multinationals.
Community media and other civil society organisations have expressed the fear that broader communication and media concerns - essential features of any 'Information Society' - and human and communication rights that are central to its core have on the whole been sidelined. A press release from Amarc states that the outcome of PrepCom-3 held in September
gives priority to the infrastructure for Internet connectivity whilst failing to address the fundamental barriers of electricity supply, literacy and equipment costs which will exclude the worldâ€™s poorest people.
The Prepcom-3 talks basically broke down as governmental representatives, along with representatives from the private and civil sectors failed to agree on the wording of a Declaration of Principles and an Action Plan, to be signed at the WSIS in December. Both documents are shot through with contentious issues such as who will finance the development of the 'Information Society', who will govern the Internet, intellectual property rights, open-source software and freedom of expression. Criticism of the Declaration of Principles includes the observation that the word 'democracy' is only mentioned once, and then only at the very end of the document. And further, that the most fundamental human right in terms of empowering the online citizen, the right to associate and by extension to communicate, is not even mentioned at all; is not freedom of expression meaningless without an audience, or in this case an 'online community' and two-way exchange?
Complaints have also been lodged against the United Nations that the WSIS is not open to all civil society organisations. The press freedom group Reporters Sans Frontières have been banned from attending the WSIS after finding themselves suspended from the UN Commission for Human Rights for vigorously protesting against the composition of the Commission. The group Human Rights in China has also been denied accreditation to the WSIS and so will also not be able to attend. A further 'intersessional' meeting took place in a last ditch effort to build consensus between participants before the WSIS proper in December.
As the forthcoming Summit looks set to descend into a farce - Richard Stallman, the free software advocate, said at a recent conference:
The best thing that can happen with the WSIS is to break down - civil society groups are organising a vigorous counter strategy to ensure that their voice, and that of community media, gets heard.
The World Forum on Communication Rights, an independent civil-society led initiative, is a parallel conference to WSIS held again in Geneva on 11th December in order to:
- demonstrate and document the importance of communication rights for people and communities in an emerging information society
- contribute to the emergence and understanding of a coherent concept of communication rights
- generate cooperation in promoting the concept, recognition and realisation of communication rights
The Forum will specifically focus on the following four themes so as to cover items that have not been adequately dealt with in the WSIS agenda:
- Communication and Poverty: how poverty has 'disappeared' from media, the role of communication in development, and community-led access in poor areas.
- Communication, Conflict and Peace: drawing on experience and trends in media in the context of conflict - before, during and after; the militarisation of ICTs; censorship and surveillance.
- Communication, Copyright, Patents and Trade: the impact of current and proposed regional and global trade agreements on media and culture; global consolidation of corporate media; copyright restrictions and alternatives; open source and free software.
- Communication and Human Rights: its role not only in freedom of expression and privacy, but in all human rights, from the right to a fair trial and freedom of movement, to freedom of assembly and workers' rights, together with democratic governance.
Among the outputs of the World Forum on Communication Rights will be a published Guide to Communication Rights and the launch of a Charter on Communication Rights.
Another group, Geneva-03, has been discussing
how to intervene in, outside of, counter to, or as an alternative to the agenda and organisation of the WSIS. Geneva-03 sees the whole Summit as a smokescreen:
Although it talks about the digital divide, knowledge dissemination, social interaction, political engagement, media, education, and health, this language is used to mystify the continuing use of information to protect and advance the interests of global capital.
Geneva-03 has planned a number of activities in reaction to the corporate sponsored UN agenda:
- 'WSIS? We Seize' - a strategic convention before the UN summit in Geneva, comprising discussions, panels and presentations.
- A polymedia lab to share tools, skills, experiences, and knowledge.
- A three-day webcast that will follow the rotation of the earth, streaming independent media activism and community media projects from across the globe.
As part of 'WSIS? We Seize', Geneva-03 will invite ICT workers from all overthe world including Asian call centre workers and Korean trade unionists, amongst others. Panels will address the growing problem of 'e-waste' and redundant technology. The environmental impact of the mining of coltane, used in the production of micro-chips, from the Congo will also be examined. Groups such as the 'consumer guerilla brigade' Yo Mango have also been invited to Geneva to stage their theatrical subversions. The psychogeographers of the Bureau d'Etudes at the 'Université Tangente' will be undertaking a sophisticated mapping exercise of Geneva to illustrate and expose the complex interplay of the forces of power and influence around the WSIS.
Hacker groups and free software practitioners such as the Metabolic BioHackLab from Spain and the Autistici from Italy will engage in the polymedia lab to create free and autonomous technical spaces in which to exchange knowledge and skills. The Linux Professional Institute will hold an open source software workshop and certification exam lab at the WSIS and it is their intention to put a Linux 'live' CD in the hands of every WSIS delegate.
Geneva-03 calls on the entire community media sector to take part in 'WSIS? We Seize' to join their mailing list and contribute ideas, to get involved in the three-day webcast and create some interesting content, as well as participating in the panels and debates either in person or via the Internet. Our sector has a duty to itself and to others to make sure at the world’s very first summit on the Information Society that the global corporate interests realise that we do count and that one day, we’ll seize!