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Global civil societies and WSIS : actors, visions, methods and strategies… towards what governance?

Milton L. Mueller - April 2007


1.The notion of ‘global civil societies’ : the concept and the actors

The very concept of civil society is extremely vague and malleable. It could be considered as a perpetual transformation or evolution, of which the composing factors are in a constant state of modification depending on their structures, themes, challenges…

The civil society itself is a notion with blurred demarcations, representing precisely the ambiguity in which we are all seeped. It involves an amalgamation of protagonists, the representatives of collectives – but not necessarily – belonging neither to the state nor to private industry. Realistically, it might involve those individuals having exercised a professional role either within the government or within private industry, they could even have their own audit firm.

These ambiguities surrounding the notion of ‘civil society’ are demonstrative of the difficulty in classifying the contemporary developments within it. The same goes for governance, which is a process before becoming a state. This vagueness informs the research, the tentatives and the experiments undertaken to create a more efficient state, to create a new relationship with the ruling power. In the digital age, forms of government are constantly adapting and transforming.

If we consider the notion of civil society through the WSIS case study, ‘the civil society’ is a diverse assembly of groups, networks and movements, containing a variety of viewpoints and positions on practically all of the subjects on the agenda at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). It includes, among others, the representatives of essentially ‘professional’ NGOs, the Unionist movement, community-based media, traditional media interest-groups, members of parliament and the representatives of local government, the scientific and academic community, educators, librarians, charity-workers, the movement for disability rights, activists for youth issues, associations supporting autochtone communities, think-tanks, philanthrophic foundations, the women’s liberation movement and the defenders of human rights and the right to expression1.

Within the context of the summit, the civil society consisted of, simultaneously, the group of NGO movements - associations that were entirely different (as much as in their status as in their claims, that is to say in their action strategies) AND a ‘club of international leaders’, activists and consultants that were or were not from these movements.

Naturally, a new political team or ‘staff’ emerged from these networks. It was thus that we observed an ‘enlightened avant-garde’, who benefitted from both political legitimacy and technical legitimacy. Often historically implicated in these movements, they had profitted from a brand of internal ‘validation’ from the rest of the group. Other skills lent weight to their legitimacy, such as their flair for writing, communications or public address, their knowledge of foreign languages, as well as their availability to participate in preparatory talks for the WSIS for the four years preceding.

To my mind it is increasingly important to recognise these leaders, since it will be these very individuals as they will be present at the Summit as representatives of the civil society within the Internet Goverance Forum (IGF).


2.The internet as both tool and object of militant protest

From a historical perspective, the media and social struggles have always gone hand in hand. Information and communication have been contemporaneously the instruments and the objects of various struggles. Today, innovation has allowed the internet revolution to multiply the two ‘roles’ of the media tenfold, becoming both a tool of liberation and that of domination. I find that there is a fine, fluctuant line between the internet : tool to facilitate protest and internet : object of protest. We use the ‘tool’ that is the internet to enable the construction of the ‘internet as object’.

3.Civil society and the governance of the internet : political vision v the technological approach of the information society

Within the WSIS, the civil society attributes a political dimension to information societies, before exploring the technical aspect of these same societies.

Milton’s discourse explains succinctly the drift between an exclusively technical approach to ‘Internet Governance’ (understood as ICANN-related issues) and an expanded approach to this internet governance, becoming a ‘wide variety of policy issues.’

Questions linked to internet governance in the restrictive sense of the term ‘ICANN issues’ are simply a small part of the various concerns of the actors within the civil society. As Milton emphasises, the majority of actors concentrate their demands on the democracy of access to and use of networks, the cost of access, its role in education and the dissemination of research, aid to handicapped peoples, the struggle against poverty, potential contributions towards literacy, assistance in the creation of new activities, of new economic models, etc., etc….these efforts are very rarely dedicated to the attribution of domaine names ending in .fr or .org, or against the spread of spam.

For the majority of actors within the civil society, questions regarding the governance of the internet are largely perceived as extremely or abnormally technical, in that they can be cloaked in specifications, protocols and other juridico-techinical arrangements that make it difficult to distinguish the political issue at stake, such as freedom of speech, the notion of (private and public) data protection, free access to networks etc.

This approach can be explained primarily by the chronology of movements carried out by representatives of this, the global civil society. At the very root of this global civil society, within the domaine of digital networks and communications, we find many movements that are based upon what Milton would term ‘continuations of long-term issues in mass-media and telecommunication regulation and technology policy’. Therefore, these movements and actors might easily identify with one another via their activities or demands : they can dissipate information on investments and usage, training users for these new instruments of information and communication, exchange and compare experiences and teachings on these new practices, assist decision-making, apply pressure and generally constitute an interface between practise and decisive political action. These are the collectives that aim to promote egalitarian access to digital networks, such as those associations which support the dissemination of free software. These groups campaign for equal rights to communication, for the denunciation of racist or sexist content and for structured training schemes within the media.

These movements have, at best, been able to understand the challenges inherent in internet governance – although they have majoritatively been disinterested – they are rarely invloved in debates or in the working groups dedicated to ‘ICANN issues.’

When examining the composition of the panels and of the different groups engaged in the IGF (Internet Governance Forum) – we notice two things : the under-representation of the civil society and its collaborations with private industry on the one hand, and, within this same civil society, the priority given to the representatives of ‘techno’ institutions and to university staff/ researchers.2

4.The organisation of the global civil society at the WSIS : elements and structures

Our hypothesis is that the global civil society would not have been able to emerge, define itself and organise itself unless it was actually obliged to. It was, in fact, the restrictions imposed by the United Nations, that allowed for the appearance of this new actor on the international scene.

The importance of communication networks was truly assimilated during their implication at the World Summit on the Information Society, as much in their own regard as in the regard of the public, the governments and the companies. For the first time in the history of world governance, a United Nations Summit opened the preparatory session to actors from the private sector as well as those from the civil society. This gesture, of an inter-governmental system extending itself towards a non-governmental one, should be considered as the first step in the quest for a new kind of governance3. It could be that in taking this courageous decision, Kofi Annam, Secretary General of the United Nations, was looking to restore the legitimacy of the UN, which has never before been as seriously threatened.

It is important to recognise that the very holding of the UN Summit is the result of a conflict within the organistion, between pro Unesco and pro ITU factions. What is interesting about this is that across these two bodies, there are two conflictual perceptions of the Information Society that struggle for ascendency : the humanist vision and the technical vision. We know that it is this second vision that suceeded, at the wish of the coalitions of private enterprises and governments; alternatively, the civil society, with the support of certain governments depending on the themes, tended to prioritise the human aspect within these information societies.

The Summit had a determinative and binding effect on the formulation of recommendations. Yet one of the most interesting contributions involved the processes and the procedures put into place by the ‘civil society’, as much to organise their work as to resolve the questions of legitimacy and representation in the recommendations and the official discourse4. This, for us, constitutes a real methodological advance and the creation of a true laboratory for global governance.

The ‘leaders’ of militant movements have implemented ‘bodies’ charged with developing the work of the civil society and ensuring their continued representation. Put simply, three principal bodies can be identified :5

  • a full assembly : this is the directive and decisive instance for the civil society; open to all potential participants, physically or virtually, most of its deliberation takes place online.

  • A coordination group, named ‘content and thematic’ group responsible for the background proposals, originating from the thematic groups (human rights, the disabled…) and of the caucus representing the different ‘families’ (unions, university staff…) from the civil society.

  • a civil society office charged with all relations with the inter-governmental office, regarding logistic and procedural issues. This office, composed of twenty one representatives of the thematic groups and caucus, will act under the authority of the full assembly.

5.The strategic approach of the civil society : institutionalisation

  • This organisation represents the huge effort of collective intelligence from members of the civil society and has greatly contributed to its ‘legitimacy’ endowed by the other actors, governments and members of the private sector who are involved in the summit. These structures and operational codes have allowed for the production of numerous proposals and practical recommendations. The elaboration and dissemination of the declaration ‘Defining Information Societies centred on Human Requirements’6during the Geneva summit, emphasised the political maturity of the actors within the civil society and gave the former a truely respectable status within the context of the summit.

  • The civil society office represents a significant political advance. For the first time in the history of the United Nations, infrastructures have been created to associate it with the civil society, simultaneously institutionalising its participation in the summit and creating a precedent for future meetings.

  • Presumably, the supposed goal of this ‘civil society’ was to privilege certain aspects that may have been insufficiently accounted for, but equally to percieve itself as able to take action, through mobilisation, regarding political negotiations. The desire of these actors was to transform the the system and its institutions in order to change political processes and the subsequent decisions taken. To do this, their first step was to institutionalise themselves and to integrate themselves into the existing processes. Only the future will tell if these strategic choices will engender a degree of political innovation. For the time being, we can refer to the in-depth analysis performed following the summit on this participation of the civil society in the non-governmental negotiations.7

6.After the summit… and beyond

To conclude, we can say that this WSIS is the first UN summit to visualise the civil society as a ‘separate actor in its entirety’, and, with regards to its organisation and its production, that it incarnates an important drift in international governance. The balances of strength and power change and the civil society seems to be called upon to play an increasingly important role in the definition of a new public space which will transcend national frontiers. But this role must still be concretised. This is certainly the sentiment following both this summit and other growing trends.

More than a year and a half after the completion of the summit, the place and the role of the civil society is far from being firmly anchored, neither in the follow-up and the implementation of the conclusions of the summit nor with the Forum on Internet Governance.

The implementation of the results of the Tunis summit were entrusted to the ITU (International Telecommunications Union), more specifically to its economic and social consul, via its comission of science and technology for development. The subsquent recognition of the implication of the civil society necessitated a reform of this commission; in February 2006 the first consultations showed evidence of serious reticence from the governments regarding the implication of the civil society8 and in July 2006 even the role of observer for members of the civil society was being debated and contested by certain governments.

As far as the implementation of the Internet Governance Forum went, the Secretary General of the United Nations endeavoured to formulate a team of experts comprising forty-five members. Yet again, only seven members of the civil society were appointed. The governments had nineteen seats at their disposal, the private sector had ten and the representatives of ICANN, a quasi-public institution with strong links to American interests had nine seats. The inaugural meeting of this forum in October 2006 confirmed the prepoderance of government and market interests in this debate9.

Only the Alliance for Information and Communication Technology for Development (a new structure launched in June 2006 by the United Nations) seems, from its inception, to favour the multi-partner approach of the WSIS. In the composition of its various institutions the civil society is represented in equal number10.

Philosophy, Politics and the common goods that Information constitutes

This phenomenon is well underway and can not be ignored : the citizen resistence is growing and aims to link up these smaller, individual movements, also associating them with certain social movements which lead other protests, such as the fight for human rights or for the protection of the environment. They are all united in the same struggle for the democratization of commmunications and information, a cornerstone of democratic society.

Therefore, across the trans-national, the national and the local space new regulators and seats of power will emerge. Today, the old and the new must fight to gain or maintain power. We are in an age of an interdependent decision-making and a multiplicity of institutions. And if no solution can be found, democratic crisis is sure to follow.

This is why it is absolutely necessary to work towards the conception of a new political philosophy in order to regulate our networked societies, and to define their values before legislating about human relations.

In this context, there is a cautious shift towards the issue of the common good of information, which could allow for the concretisation of an oft-quoted but never-achieved objective which consists of drawing nearer to the social movements which are not directly implicated in the challenges inherent to communication. These alliances represent the major obstacles to overcome today.

All of these movements working on questions regarding the governance of the internet should link up with other social movements, or even become parts of them. Certain among them are already working in this direction, for example, the Association for Community Radio, in possession of 3000 community radios who recently mobilised themselves on the global commerce agreements, as well as on the international debate on cultural diversity. Yet these movements also have to consider communication as an object of social struggles, and not simply a tool.

The key to reconciliation lies in conceiving information as a stake in power. In fields as varied as access to healthcare and medicine, the right to healthy produce, the fight against famine, the preservation of natural resources, the right to education, to training and to knowledge, to free, universal access to culture in all its guises, the same priorities present themselves : human development and the conservation of our planet. The notion of the common good of information would serve to gather together all those who aim to construct a responsible and interdependent world.

Notas de pie de página

1 A detailed appendix on the notion of NGOs and the civil society is included in the introductory kit for the summit organised by CONGO, the coordinating body of the NGOs at the UN. www.ngocongo.org/files/smis_kit_d_orientation.pdf

2 see www.intgovforum.org/PL_Feb13.html and the list of participants of the control group from the Athens meeting who are preparing for the next meeting of the IGF in Rio in November 2007 www.intgovforum.org/list%20of%20panellists.php

3 Resolution 56/183 of the general assembly of the United Nations, www.itu.int/wsis/docs/background/resolutions/56_183_unga_2002.pdf

4 On the process of the WSIS we can refer back to the study by Mark Raboy and Normand Landry, Communication at the Heart of Global Governance, challenges and perspectives of the civil society at the WSIS, Department of Communication, Montreal, 2004. www.lrpc.umontreal.ca/smsirapport.pdf, completed in the appendix - www.lrpc.umontreal.ca/smsiannexes.pdf, in addition to the work of Valery Peugeot, Relieurs, available on vecm.org/article.php3?id_article=364, 2004

5 The totality of these bodies put in place by the civil society is largely detailed in the introductory kit for the global summit, organised by CONGO . www.ngocongo.org/files/smis/_kit_d_orientation.pdf)

6 Civil Society declaration ‘Defining Information Societies centred on Human Requirements’ www.worldsummit2003.de/download_en/WSIS-CS-Dec-121103-fr.pdf

7 See specifically Mark Raboy and Normand Landry op. cit. ; Valerie Peugeot, Relieurs, op. cit. An evaluation on the evolution of relations between NGOs and the United Nations was made by Tony Hill ‘Three Generations of UN-Civil Society Relations : A Quick Sketch’ UN-NGLS, March 2004, included in the introductory kit organised by CONGO.

8 Information on this meeting can be accessed at www. itu.int/reform/Council-Res-1224/index.html, www.itu.int/reform

9 www.intgovforum.org_www.igfgreece2006.gr and www.intgovforum.org

10 www.un-gaid.org


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