ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Who Speaks for the Governed?

Global disparities over access to information and communication technologies formed the basis of the call for a UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society that took place in two phases in Geneva (2003) and Tunis (2005). In addition to the private sector and state delegates, accredited civil society organisations were for the first time invited to the table to participate in debates over financing ICT for development, ensuring cultural diversity, the future of intellectual property rights and debating the merits of a new system of internet governance. This article critically examines the role of civil society in proposing a "humanitarian agenda" that contests the dominant neoliberal mode of governance within the WSIS process. Specifically, the article considers why narrow claims for recognition - expressed in the right to freedom of information - eclipsed more expansive claims for both recognition and redistribution in terms of access to ICT infrastructure and content. It draws from feminist insights into the normative dimensions of global social justice after more than two decades of theory and praxis around transnational activism and the challenges of deliberation through difference.

Who Speaks for the Governed? World Summit on Information Society, Civil Society and the Limits of ‘Multistakeholderism’

Global disparities over access to information and communication technologies formed the basis of the call for a UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society that took place in two phases in Geneva (2003) and Tunis (2005). In addition to the private sector and state delegates, accredited civil society organisations were for the first time invited to the table to participate in debates over financing ICT for development, ensuring cultural diversity, the future of intellectual property rights and debating the merits of a new system of internet governance. This article critically examines the role of civil society in proposing a “humanitarian agenda” that contests the dominant neoliberal mode of governance within the WSIS process. Specifically, the article considers why narrow claims for recognition – expressed in the right to freedom of information – eclipsed more expansive claims for both recognition and redistribution in terms of access to ICT infrastructure and content. It draws from feminist insights into the normative dimensions of global social justice after more than two decades of theory and praxis around transnational activism and the challenges of deliberation through difference.


World Summit on the Information Society1

nformation policy has emerged as a technocratic domain of governance largely restricted to those with “expertise”, accessible to corporate lobbies, World Bank-funded thinktanks, and economic and technical advisors to state bodies focusing primarily on foreign investment and trade. The call for a UNsponsored world summit was initially justified when access to the benefits of the information society were seen as fundamental to the millennium development goals of eradicating poverty and hunger, and improving access to health, education and employment. In practice, the achievements of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) failed to reach any agreement on how to finance the bridge to overcome the digital and material divides both between the north and south, and increasingly within the “developing” world. The second stage of the WSIS concluded on November 18, 2005 in Tunis to mixed reviews and limited public attention outside those already involved in the long process of summitry organised by the “UN family.” Instead of United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), which had been the venue of heated debates on the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) in the1970s, the more technocratic International Telecommunications Union (ITU) hosted the two-stage WSIS summit first in Geneva (in 2003) and then in Tunis (2005). By the end of the process, all multistakeholders – national state delegations, corporate actors and civil society – claimed some degree of success with the outcome of the main focus of negotiations – internet governance – with the creation of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to serve as a check to the US’ refusal to cede control of Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN ). The multistakeholder status of the IGF has reinforced for some that global governance is “no longer the sole domain of governments” but rather “a laboratory which develops innovative models and mechanisms for a new global diplomacy” [Kleinwächter 2004]. At the press conference held by civil society organisations at the close of the Tunis summit, speakers focused on the violation of human rights in the form of state censorship of information by the host government, giving credence to the need for oversight by civil society organisations. Renate Bloem of the Civil Society Bureau reinforced the importance of the language of multistakeholderism within the WSIS process stating that “We have moved to become a partner in negotiations” [APC 2005]. Despite greater formal participation of civil society organisations in areas like internet governance, even those who wanted to emphasise a sense of optimism agreed that the summit fell far short of its larger objectives:

…to marshal the global consensus and commitment required topromote the urgently needed access of all countries to information,knowledge and communication technologies for development soas to reap the full benefits of the information and communicationtechnologies revolution, and to address the whole range of relevantissues related to the information society, through the developmentof a common vision and understanding of the information societyand the adoption of a declaration and plan of action for implementation by governments, international institutions and all sectorsof civil society (UN Resolution A/RES/56/183, December 2001).

Global disparities over access to information and communication technologies (ICTs), still apparent despite the exuberant cyber-libertarian discourse of the 1990s, formed the basis of the call for a multilateral summit on the scale of the 1992 Rio summit on the environment and 1995 Beijing summit on women. As an exemplary response to the post-Washington consensus, accredited civil society organisations were, for the first time, invited to the table to participate by the ITU in deliberations over financing ICT for development (ICT4D), ensuring cultural diversity, negotiating the future of intellectual property rights and debating the merits of a new system of internet governance. The role of civil society in shaping policy outcome in the novel multistakeholder process has been assessed by communications scholars from a historical perspective as well as through the lens of participation in the various stages of negotiations.2 The presence of a wide range of civil society organisations was meant to serve as a moral check to the official process of summitry both alongside official negotiations, but also at its margins in parallel sessions, as well as through a counter-summit organised in Geneva but later banned in Tunis. In both phases, competing civil society declarations were published promoting an alternate set of principles in contrast to the official documents, and there continues a vibrant debate both within and more interestingly, beyond the official institutional terrain of UN recognised civil society bodies.3

The organisational logic of multistakeholderism demonstrates a profound shift from the previous era’s NWICO debate, when nation states primarily from the non-aligned world pressed for both redistribution of resources and national sovereignty against the “cultural imperialism” of western information flows. In this paper, I trace this shift, from an era that was characterised by a debate focusing on redistribution without recognition to the current era of multistakeholderism, where the debate is characterised by an emphasis on recognition at the expense of redistribution. Within the broader theme of this special issue, this paper addresses the politics of science and technology within postcolonial societies and argues, in the same spirit as the papers by McMillan and Hashmi, that feminist analysis offers particularly useful critical insights on debates about technology, society and social power. In this case, I draw from feminist political theory and political economy, which offer insights into the normative dimensions of global social justice after more than two decades of theory and praxis around transnational social movements and the challenges of deliberation through difference. Feminist political theorists like Nancy Fraser have argued that claims for justice are multifaceted along at least two recognisable, inter-related dimensions of redistribution (claims around economic equality) and recognition (claims around cultural difference). Historically, Fraser argues that while redistributive claims were predominant in the Fordist or national development era without adequate attention to gender, caste or nationality, claims for recognition have overshadowed egalitarian claims in the post-Fordist, post-socialist era of global integration [Fraser and Honneth 2003]. While there has been intense disagreement amongst feminist theorists about the rigid demarcation between these categories, for the purposes of this paper, I argue that most feminist theorists are in agreement that claims for social justice should address both material (redistributive) and the cultural (recognition) dimensions simultaneously [Benhabib 2004; Young 2000; Mohanty 2004]. Additionally, feminist political economists studying the opportunities and costs associated with new technologies and global integration have argued for the need to pay greater attention to location and representation by the very subjects

– the poor, women and other marginalised groups – who are often assumed to be the victims of injustice as a result of globalisation [Kabeer 2003; Mitter and Ng 2005]. Issues of representation speak to the necessary limits of popular participation in UN or other international summits based on the symbolic capital and competence required to engage in these processes, not to mention the material resources necessary to attend. Keeping these limits in mind, the final section of the paper considers debates within the gender caucus of the WSIS civil society process as a site where the limits of multistakeholderism are turned into productive tensions, demonstrating one possible way out of the impasses discussed above.

Long and Winding Road from Bandung to Tunis

Very few of the official speeches at the Tunis summit by national leaders from the south addressed the legacy of the previous era of debate over international communication, which had its roots in the non-aligned movement and a history of collective third world solidarity within the UN. Although “decolonising information” and reversing “cultural imperialism” was not on the agenda in Bandung in 1955, by the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, leaders from the group of 77 nations pushed for a series of reforms within UNESCO, which fundamentally challenged the balance of power in the international distribution of information and pressed for the need for cultural self-determination. National leaders rearticulated criticisms initially articulated by radical Latin American scholars against US “media imperialism” across both the north-south as well as the east-west axes of the cold war matrix [Mattelart 2002: 181]. Across these axes, national leaders from the south and east agreed over the need for state autonomy over the means of communications and information flow against the US-led vision of the “free flow” of information. Akhil Gupta (2001) has argued that third world solidarity through the call for a new economic and communication order “represented an effort on the part of economically and militarily weaker nations to use the interstate system to consolidate the nation state” (p 191). The call for redistribution of international communications resources therefore hinged on the ambiguities of national state power – opening the way for a coordinated and strategic offensive against the NWICO vision on the grounds of state repression and censorship.

The historical significance of the NWICO debate became only more important in the post-cold war era when the US along with its G-7 allies were able to transform the terms of negotiation within venues restricted to trade-related and technical governance issues. The dissolution of the collective non-aligned oppositional voice in the international arena eased the way for discussions to move to the Uruguay Round of the GATT and ultimately the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the ITU and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). The 1990s saw the re-regulation of international communications focused on the harmonisation of open markets and the construction and enforcement of the intellectual property rights regime almost completely displace the earlier redistributive concerns. However, scholars have only recently began to also address the contradictory role of the post-colonial state in the NWICO era, when passionate calls for redistribution and accountability in the international arena went hand-in-hand with silences over internal inequalities and repression of difference [Chakravartty and Sarikakis 2006]. In this earlier period, state leaders repeatedly made claims for cultural difference through strictly national frames, with the issue of national sovereignty often cloaking internal cultural difference such as gender and racial discrimination and political repression by minority communities and political dissidents.

In the three decades between NWICO and the WSIS, feminists, civil rights and a variety of new social movements have challenged the role of states to represent what is accepted as the public’s interest, both nationally and transnationally. Alongside the

“Where are those phone lines we were promised in 1996?” In

emerging framework of global governance of the information economy, civil society organisations based primarily in the north, have carried on the “legacy” of the MacBride Commission spurring on a new generation of community media activism and coordinated research which would challenge the dominant logic of trade-based expansion and re-regulation [Calabrese 2004]. In other words, as the majority of former non-aligned third world national representatives were signing on to the new terms of the neoliberal information economy in the 1990s, it was northern-based civil society organisations that began to formulate an oppositional “humanitarian agenda”. Among other organisations, these included the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) based in Canada, the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) based in the UK, and the Association for Progressive Communication, a loose network of NGOs that began in the US and the UK. It is important to point out that I am focusing primarily on the emerging multilateral policy arena around the information economy, as opposed to the various formal and informal networks and projects at the local, national and regional levels that involved competing and complementary forms of activism, opposition and intervention [Downing 2001; Lovink 2002].

Introducing an alternative normative vision for the rules governing the information economy, these groups argued for treating knowledge as common property, distinguishing between the rights of citizens versus consumers, regulating global media concentration, promoting cultural autonomy through exemptions to trade rules in the cultural arena and promoting individual privacy [Hamelink 2002]. In 2001, some of the NGOs working in this area formed the Communication Rights for the Information Society (CRIS) campaign, in response to the formation of the WSIS as a multistakeholder summit. The CRIS campaign has played a pivotal role in coordinating a civil society voice in the WSIS process, reinforcing the right to communicate as a foundation for debates about social justice:

Our vision of the information society is grounded in the right to communicate, as a means to enhance human rights and to strengthen the social, economic and cultural lives of people and communities. The information society that interests us is one that is based on principles of transparency, diversity, participation and social and economic justice, and inspired by equitable gender, cultural and regional perspectives. <>

It is apparent from this statement that there are some continuities but also obvious ruptures from the social justice vision of the earlier NWICO era. The redistributive focus in this discourse emphasises ensuring open public communication and equitable access to the means of communications across national, class, gender along other lines. In terms of claims for recognition, this new vision disavows the role of nation state, and instead focuses on the cultural autonomy of communities and the individual human right to communication. It is this latter focus on communication as a human right that found a level of “transcultural resonance” [Keck and Sikkink 1998] lending a significant degree of legitimacy to these claims in the multistakeholder arena, and in the next section I consider why this is the case.

Recognition without Redistribution?

The influence of CRIS and other recognised civil society actors on shaping policy outcome through the WSIS process were limited in practice. Responding to criticism about the narrow institutional mandate that had historically excluded civil society participation, the sponsoring ITU commissioned a “civil society division” meant to facilitate the full participation of civil society in the summitry process. Still, the principal actors in WSIS were its 191 member states and the over 650 corporate actors represented by the ominously named “Coordinating Committee of Business Interlocutors” (CBBI). Among civil society organisations themselves there remained a deep imbalance. The very definition of recognised stakeholders, the structural constraints placed through an emphasis on minute procedural details, and finally the centralisation of the civil society bureaucracy meant that by and large the voice of civil society within the WSIS was both concentrated and narrowly limited to northern organisations and their terms of debate, despite the formally open process.

The WSIS process was preceded by the three preparatory committee (PrepCom) meetings as well as regional meetings facilitated by UNESCO, leading to the first WSIS in Geneva in December 2003. The multistakeholders submitted written contributions to the ITU, however, unlike corporate and state representatives who followed an already procedures established within the ITU, the new procedural terms of engagement dominated discussions amongst civil society groups, and in the end, only recognised organisations registered through the intergovernmental ITU and coordinated by the civil society bureau (CSB) would count as civil society delegates. The working definition of civil society within the WSIS process formulated the following definition of who counted as civil society:

Organisations – including movements, networks, and other entities

– which are autonomous from the State, are not intergovernmental, or do not represent the private sector, and which, in principle, are non-profit-making, act locally, nationally, and internationally, in defence and promotion of social, economic, and cultural interests, defence of human rights, promotion of development objectives, and for mutual benefit. <>

The organisation of a civil society “voice” was thus coordinated from above through the CSB, organised around regional cluster groups, as well as “Families and Focal Points” covering 16 distinct thematic areas, from NGOs, media and educational and academic research to indigenous communities, trade unions, people with disabilities, youth and gender (see <>).

With the question of who counts as civil society becoming a central focus leading up to the Geneva summit, CSOs began to voice concerns with the fact that national representatives to the intergovernmental ITU from authoritarian states like China, Pakistan, Singapore and Tunisia were preventing the accreditation of independent human rights groups from participating [Banks 2005]. This issue was bolstered by the fact that state representatives from northern nations as well as CSO representatives strongly opposed the Chinese delegation’s persistent objection to the inclusion of language in the WSIS official documents that would support the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including Article 19 guaranteeing the right to the freedom of expression.

Although the communication rights and human rights campaigns were committed to a more expansive vision of the right to communication – rights which include access to the infrastructure and content – northern state delegates, led most aggressively by the US, strategically separated the narrow definition of the right to communicate from other areas like financing access to affordable telecommunications and ICTs and rethinking intellectual property rights in terms of more open access to content. In Geneva, John Marburger, the US representative to the summit spelled out the three key principles of ICT development in his plenary address:

First, domestic policies must encourage investment in research and

innovation. This means supporting privatisation, competition, and

liberalisation…Second…uncensored print and broadcast media

bring new perspectives on old issues, and stimulate timely re

sponses to emerging social needs. During the past week states have

affirmed their commitment to freedom of the press as well as to

independence, pluralism, and diversity of the media. We call upon

all countries to affirm and implement Article 19 of the Universal

Declaration of Human Rights; Third…respect for intellectual as

well as physical property is a necessary part of the social infra

structure for success. This is an issue that transcends national

boundaries, but together we can create a global culture of network

security that seeks to protect users, no matter where they live. The

consensus achieved this week emphasises the importance of cyber


(John Marburger, director, Office of Science and Technology Policy,

Executive Office of the President, Geneva, December 11, 2003.)


It is thus not a surprise that the WSIS Declaration of Principles (2003) reaffirms the right to the freedom of expression, a right that virtually all CSOs, private sector actors and a vast majority of nation states, most importantly nation states from the north, support. In addition to human rights, the other substantive area of the greatest civil society engagement was the issue of internet governance, where CSOs called for greater democratisation of ICANN, with the US and some of its northern allies and the private sector arguing strongly for the status quo as a non-profit organisation based in the US. However, other areas of disagreement between civil society and its more powerful “partners” in negotiation found little resolution or even discussion in this first stage. The two most significant were the areas proprietary norms over intellectual property rights (IPRs) and financing the “bridge” to the digital divide. In terms of the first area, northern states have been largely successful at reinforcing existing IPRs and keeping meaningful negotiation off the WSIS agenda, despite the fact that southern nations like Argentina, Brazil, China, South Africa, and others have argued persistently for the need to rethink the redistributive and developmental impact of laws that favour northern nations and private firms. The lack of movement on this issue within the WSIS is in stark contrast to recent shifts within the WTO and WIPO, where southern nations with the support of civil society, have critiqued and introduced a series of reforms within these institutions [Shashikant 2005]. Leading up to the Geneva summit, the Senegalese delegation proposed a “Digital Solidarity Fund” (DSF) to redistribute resources from the north to the south to finance the expansion of ICTs that faced strong opposition from the US, the EU and Japan. The US proposed a counter “Digital Freedom Initiative” (DFI) that essentially builds on a pre-existing US Agency for International Development (USAID) African development scheme of promoting “‘enabling environments’ for the creation of US corporate interests in Africa” [Accuosto and Johnson 2005: 13-14]. Coordinated opposition by northern state actors and the private sector against establishing such a financing mechanism, rendered the DSF a weak programme, dependent on voluntary contributions as opposed to a tax on users or firms. Accuosto and Johnson (2005) have carefully documented the fact that little progress was made in this foundational area, despite the setting up of a new multistakeholder task force on financial mechanisms, which was meant to highlight financing in the second phase of the summit.

At the end of the Geneva phase, most CSO participants and observers agreed that the multistakeholder process had been disappointing in terms of shaping policy outcome [Dany 2004]. Nevertheless, many CSO participants argued that the opportunity to build alliances and networks and expertise in the multistakeholder process had its own merits, and that the formulation of the civil society declaration was a testament to a competing vision for policy-makers involved in local and national information policy governance [Padovani 2004]. Within the organisations representing civil society there were intense disagreements about the prioritisation of human rights over an economic development agenda, which had been the rationalisation for the formation of the summit itself. Human rights activists like Rikke Frank Jorgensen and Meryem Marzouki (2005) argued that it was problematic to pose a distinction between unequal distribution of wealth and human rights, as they are deeply intertwined, and showed that “a number of CSOs do not see human rights as the normative foundation for any society, independently of the level of development, but rather as something secondary to issues of development” (p 20). Although these same critics acknowledged that some CSOs from the north have a narrow definition of human rights as limited to “freedom of expression”, there was little mention about the unequal power between nation states when it comes to articulating the foundations for a global vision of social justice in the information society.

The lack of strategic intervention on the areas of intellectual property and access to ICTs was seen by many as the result of the “low participation” of CSOs from the south. The fact that European and north American organisations dominated civil society discussions was explained by the prohibitive costs of attendance, language of deliberation and requisite “expertise” in ICT-related areas [Kleinwächter 2004]. And within civil society, those who had been most active in the WSIS process, like Anriette Esterhuysen, the executive director of APC, argued that the most significant beneficial outcome had been the networking opportunities for southern CSOs to influence national policy.

Currently there is a national ICT policy process underway in Kenya and it is relatively inclusive, involving civil society and the private sector. In the Philippines, CSOs are measuring their government’s national policy process against the principles agreed on by civil society in its declaration to the WSIS. In South Africa, SANGONeT, a progressive ICT service provider, is convening public consultations on ICT policy in small and medium-sized towns, far away from Johannesburg, where community organisers are able to confront government officials with questions such as “Where are those phone lines we were promised in 1996?” In Senegal, ENDA Synfev, a women’s networking initiative convened a WSIS report-back session attended by more than 75 women. Participants ranged from organisations for the disabled to IT entrepreneurs. In Brazil a civil society organisation, RITS (Third Sector Information Network) has launched an interactive online “observatory” to facilitate public participation in “info-inclusion” policy.


Building expertise in technical policy areas was surely a benefit for a range of southern organisations either adapting the ICT agenda onto local and national initiatives, however, this argument that Southern CSOs can learn from the WSIS process and then apply those lessons locally has an inherent bias. There is an assumption here about the universality of civil society as a concept, such that more training and resources to local NGOs in the area of ICTs will inevitably lead to greater public interest intervention following models established in the north. In fact, as Anita Gurumurty and Parminder Jeet Singh (2005), directors of IT for change have argued, there is a need to reinforce the centrality of the role of the state in discussions about ICTs and development – as the only institutional actor capable of funding and coordinating development at this scale. In the case of India, where national and regional IT policy has been focused almost exclusively at export-led growth, they argue the domestic IT industry and the urban middle classes would strongly oppose “subsidised telephony for rural areas, policy support for open source software, more open regimes for knowledge and content sharing in digital platforms” (p 115). They call for pressures on the state to reprioritise ICTs as a development priority. In this vein Carlos Afonso (2005), the director of RITS (the organisation referred to above) argues that the reason that civil society has had more impact on debates over Brazil’s position on internet governance is because “the Brazilian government continues to seek a national consensus proposal regarding the future of global internet governance”(p 131).

The second phase of the summit followed another series of PrepCom and regional meetings in 2004 and 2005, this time with civil society deliberations “characterised by difference, division, and questions of identity and representation”[Banks 2005]. Key figures from the groups centrally involve in the WSIS processlike Seán Ó Siochrú (2004) from the CRIS campaign and Karen Banks (2005) from APC pointed out that questions about the legitimacy of civil society were increasingly raised by US-backed conservative groups challenging the social justice platform on issues like intellectual property rights. 4 Although this is no doubt the case, organisations and individuals involved in the civil society deliberations also raised the opposite set of concerns, about the lack of focus on more expansive claims for both recognition and redistribution. Beatriz Busaniche (2005), a free software activist from Argentina has argued that attempts at unifying a watered-down representative voice in presenting an alternate civil society declaration diminished the capacity of delegates to meaningfully intervene in negotiations with state and corporate stakeholders, when most was actually at stake (p 49).

Here, once again we return to the issues of access to ICT infrastructure and content, areas where CSOs had minimal impact, raising the more fundamental problem over which civil society is meant to represent in the multistakeholder process. Busaniche (2005) argues that participating CSOs “should not pretend to represent anyone except their own organisations” and that “citizenry should be the basis of participation”(p 51). The second phase of the summit did not see any changes in the way that civil society participated in the multistakeholder process, leading to a growing sense of disappointment amongst activists from the south over the lack of confrontation, much less outcome over access issues. Many CSOs participating in Tunis argued that there was a substantial victory in the area of internet governance against corporate interests, and US because civil society participation led to the establishment of an IGF. Hans Klein, active in this process as a civil society expert in the area of internet governance has argued that the Tunis outcome should be seen as a victory in terms of democratic deliberation:

Before WSIS, ICANN was a sort of Frankenstein organisation

created in the basement of the US department of commerce. No formal delegation of authority from the US Congress authorised its exercise of public powers. Nor did its global elections give it legitimacy, since they were cancelled before full implementation. Now ICANN can claim some degree of public authority. Many people may regret the UN’s implicit endorsement of ICANN, but no one can easily dismiss the validity of the process. ICANN is the same but different [Klein 2005].

“Same but different” was not seen as sufficient for many activists and observers, who argued that the focus and ultimately limited gains from the ICANN intervention shows that civil society networking was limited to a privileged few who helped legitimate a deeply flawed process that was easily co-opted by the more dominant state and private interests [Gurnstein 2005; Busaniche 2005].

This was evident in the area of financing of access to ICTs, which was meant to be one of the two main areas of discussion (alongside internet governance) at the Tunis meeting. Accusto and Johnson have argued that the participation of CSOs in the multistakeholder task force on financing led only to the “inclusion of some timid language into the official documents” (p 24). The DSF remained sidelined as a weak mode of financing dependent on voluntary contributions form the north. This “charity” model of development is also prevalent in the new emphasis on “publicprivate-partnerships” (PPPs) between companies like Cisco, Microsoft and Hewlett Packard and national governments as well as UN bodies which run the risk of “imposing technological solutions that transform southern societies in to captive markets” [Accuosto and Johnson 2005, p 43]. Suggestions for redistributive claims based on a global public goods model of regulation that suggests taxation of the manufacture of microchips or other methods of rising and allocating funds failed to make inroads leading up to the Tunis Summit. Furthermore, there was almost no discussion of the issue of IPRs in Tunis, with the private sector and northern states effective in displacing the central issue of access to content and technology transfer almost entirely from the official deliberations of the future of the information society.

The fact that Tunisia – an authoritarian state with an inexcusable record on freedom of information – was to host the second summit had been an issue of much debate within civil society leading up to the summit. The state’s decision to ban the planned parallel citizen’s summit heightened concerns raised by CSOs on the question of human rights. During the summit, some 150 people attended a demonstration to support a hunger strike organised by the Tunisian Human Rights League protesting the censorship of the human rights issue within Tunisia as the summit was taking place. The following few paragraphs are excerpts from a letter to secretary general of the UN, Kofi Anan, signed by hundreds of individuals, many of whom are affiliated to CSOs involved in the WSIS process:

We believe it is essential that lessons are learnt from what has taken place here this week and we therefore call upon you, the secretary general of the United Nations, to launch a full investigation into the attacks on human rights and freedom of expression that we have witnessed in Tunisia both in the run up to and during the world summit on the Information Society. We ask you to closely monitor the follow-up period in Tunisia. We also ask you to undertake a thorough-going review of procedures leading up to the choice of host country, the protocol for host country agreements with UN agencies and the commitments required of the host country. We further ask you to revise the UN rules for civil society accreditation to ECOSOC and to UN conferences in order to end the exclusion of civil society organisations where the basis for that exclusion is a decision of an individual government with no right of appeal to any independent commission. Open Letter to His Excellency Kofi A Annan, secretary-general United Nations <>

The cruel irony of Tunisa hosting a summit on the global information society was not lost on individuals and organisations that raised concerns, once again, with the narrow definition of rights in these discussions. This time the US state department voiced official “concern about Tunisia’s restrictions on the broadcast media, restrictions on the activities of non-governmental organisations and harassment of journalists”. while arguing that the US’ position on ICANN was a victory against government censorship of the internet.5 The US position on the issue of human rights seems especially galling today given the Bush administration’s persistent evasion if not violation of universal standards applied to other nations and peoples.6

If civil society engaged primarily in the areas of human rights and Internet governance, the Tunis summit showed how the private sector had mastered the discourse of sustainable and multicultural info-development. The site of the summit, physically separated and secured through armed checkpoints, was festooned with larger than life images of “colourful non-western” peoples – especially women and children – actively benefiting from their use of ICTs. As some of the most high-level negotiations went on behind closed doors – open primarily to state delegates and the private sector, and a few select representatives from civil society – a sea of prime ministers and presidents or heads of ministries of information and communications from southern states gave speeches in a vast (half empty) plenary hall. Northern governments sent, for the most part, minor officials and bureaucrats and CEOs from a variety of ICT and media conglomerates. Alongside these official events organised by the ITU, hundreds of parallel panels on a range of topics took place similar to any professional conference. The most traffic, however, was concentrated in the hi-tech corporate expo featuring Negreponte’s $100 hand-crank laptop and other magical and innovative solutions from vendors across Europe and north America, and Asia selling their latest wares to UN agencies, governments in the south and NGOs carrying out a growing number of development projects.

In the two years between Geneva and Tunis, the private sector had maintained a “low profile”, while “injecting hundreds of millions of dollars into communications for the south through PPPs. Accuosto and Johnson (2005) point out, “the majority of these resources consists of transfer of equipment and software programmes for education centres in the south, a strategy designed to create loyal new markets” (p 22). In Tunis, the “trade fair” feeling of the event was played down by corporate representatives who pointed out that their booths were not manned by salespeople but rather “community affairs” or “public sector managers”. Representatives from Sun Microsytems, Microsoft, Nokia, among others argued that they were “selling success stories” of e-governance, promotion of local language software and mobile telephony in rural Africa [Toros 2005]. The growing presence of the private sector in the development arena was explained as a “win-win” proposition, as the managing director for Africa of Hewlett-Packard Co explained “Investors are not doing business only for charity…Business must be sustainable. And funds could be cycled to local communities” [Toros 2005].

This line of argument strongly opposes any kind of tax-based solution or global public good model of regulation as proposed by CSOs from the south, as evident in the official documents produced in Tunis. Moreover, the greater participation of the private sector ensured that the issue of intellectual property and the “shrinking public domain” was firmly “kept off the WSIS agenda”. In Geneva, open source software was recognised as important if not preferential from the perspective of development by most southern nations. Partially in response to this trend, the NGO IP Watch has reported how Microsoft became an official sponsor of the WSIS Tunis summit gaining its own “speaking slot” to reinforce the importance of the “strict protection of intellectual property”, expanded its participation in WSIS by bringing 70 representatives to Tunis versus some six to Geneva and played a disproportionate role in drafting the official WSIS documents [Ermert 2005].

The legitimacy of a limited number of northern CSOs to define and articulate a vision of social justice in the global policy arena was challenged by some on the grounds that civil society in WSIS was a “closed network of the privileged” that had lost touch with social movements and broader political claims [Gurnstein 2005]. A number of international activists and researchers involved in and at the margins of the WSIS process have formed the innovative Incommunicado project, started by Michael Gurnstein and Geert Lovink, “refusing to allow an organisational incorporation of grassroot or subaltern agendas into the managed consensus being built around the dynamic of an ‘international civil (information) society’”. This new formation offers “post-sovereign” perspective and “ways of using (and remaking) ICTs to be of benefit to the ‘multitudes’”.7 This post-sovereign normative vision is reminiscent of the World Social Forum where the claims for social justice were certainly more expansive than what we found within the ITU-sponsored WSIS. In the final section of the paper, I argue that while alternatives to the WSIS process is certainly desirable, we can also locate more expansive claims for social justice that engage with recognition, redistribution and the question of representation if we look at the gender caucus within the WSIS as a site of progressive institutional engagement.

Looking Forward

The fact that CSOs within the WSIS were able to make claims about human rights that had “transcultural resonance” but were unable to make a dent in terms of redistributive claims, forces us to pay attention to the structural limitations of multistakeholderism, as well as the conceptual limitations of civil society as a universal category. It is ahistorical to assume that NGOs that have in the last two decades played a pivotal role in “sanitising” social movements in the south are representative of the “people”[Jenkins 2001; Chandhoke 2001]. In contrast to the north, where CSOs have emerged in public policy debates over communication and information policy as “public interest” or “consumer rights” groups, in post-colonial societies we must pay attention to the murky lines which divide state institutions from civil society, as well as those between civil society and what Partha Chatterjee (2004) has called, political society. In other words, it is simply inadequate to argue that based on the absence of CSOs in the south organising around ICTs, that the public’s interest would be met when there is greater civil society participation through multistakeholder process. This assumption takes for granted that CSOs are representative in and of themselves.

In practice, CSOs working in the area of information policy should be historically situated in relation to nation state and the complex trajectories of modern capitalism. It is precisely this need for greater attention to the specificities of the information societies in the south that has led to new “south-south” alliances as well as research initiatives where much more expansive claims for recognition are envisioned around redistributive claims over access to infrastructure and content.8

The gender divide in the global information society is stark, with girls and women facing universal disadvantages in terms of access, competence as well as social and economic mobility in terms of ICTs. I argue that despite the limitations imposed by the ITU’s organisational structure of multistakeholderism, the gender caucus allowed for the articulation of more expansive claims for recognition and redistribution as well as greater emphasis on the issue of representation as a result of decades of volatile and invariably productive discussion in feminist theory and politics about how to formulate campaigns for global social justice while paying attention to difference [Chakravartty and Sarikakis 2006; McLaughlin 2004].

If northern CSOs most actively engaged in the WSIS process can trace their origins to the NWICO debates and the legacy of the MacBride Commission, then the gender justice advocates who took part in WSIS have a very distinct trajectory from the 1985 and 1995 UN-sponsored summit on women in Nairobi and Beijing which set the stage for two decades of transnational advocacy and fierce debate over women’s empowerment, gender equality and norms of modernisation. The individuals and organisations that became involved in the WSIS process through the establishment of the multistakeholder gender caucus in 2002 in Mali brought a wealth of experience in transnational mobilisation grounded in a broader social concerns than most activists and policy-makers in the relatively narrow world of ICT governance. There was obviously a range of political perspectives that divided the “partners” both ideologically and geographically within this caucus, but here I focus briefly on the space that was created for critical deliberation.

Heiki Jensen (2005a), a researcher and active participant in the WSIS, has argued that the gender caucus was distinct both because it was a multistakholder body and because it had funding (from development agencies within several Nordic states and UNIFEM), unlike other caucuses within the “civil society family”. The structural organisation of the gender caucus thus allowed for regional meetings with local organisations and individuals, with an emphasis on incorporating perspectives from the south especially leading up to the second phase of the summit. Feminist activists argued from the beginning that a sense of technological determinism, insensitivity to gender inequalities and the dominance of male “experts” was rampant across all three multistakeholder bodies, including civil society organisations that promoted “gender-blind and hence male-centered” policy interventions [Jensen 2005b]. Feminist organisations within the gender caucus voiced concerns about geo-political environment within which the WSIS summit was taking place, and spoke of the human rights of girls, women and marginalised communities in the context of the Global War on Terror; “We cannot hope for an information society that promotes the highest values of humankind if we do not address meaningfully the ways in which information and communications channels including the media can be harnessed in service of peace, and in strong opposition to all illegal wars” [George 2003]. Gender advocates have made claims for greater “gender sensitive infrastructure development”, affordable universal access and sustainable and appropriate technologies, prioritisation of free and open software and attention to gender-biases in educational and employment opportunities associated with ICTs, among other areas. In keeping with the previous discussion, the gender caucus had limited influence in shaping policy outcome, beyond a much disputed paragraph on women’s empowerment and gender equality through access to ICTs in the Geneva Declaration of Principles as well as in the Tunis Commitment and a pledge to establish “gender-sensitive indicators” for “ICT uses and needs”. As Jensen (2005a) points out, however, the limited gains through the WSIS process have to be weighed against insights from the regional activities that draw from the priorities and experiences of activists and researchers and their role in following up and monitoring the implementation of WSIS priorities in the years to come.

It was often in these regional meetings where activists voiced concerns about differences in priorities between CSOs in the north and south and the lack of community or citizen participation in the WSIS deliberative process [Mundkur and Kochar 2005]. Feminist critics within the WSIS process argued that social actors engaged in the policy-making field often fail to recognise the reality of the politics of information policy, especially in the case of the developing world where the stakes of the IS debate are perhaps the highest and progressive civil society participation, the weakest. This means that instead of finding or funding CSOs based in the south to carry out policies, activists within the gender caucus have argued that there is a need to learn from how civil society organisations, state bodies and even informal networks that have less institutional power, approach claims making around information policy. It is beyond the scope of this paper to document the myriad ways in which the relatively small numbers of feminists working in this new policy domain are reframing the ICT for development agenda, but it is clear that the gender caucus allowed for the space to discuss the foundational issues of access to ICT infrastructure and content.

Feminist activists have been some of the loudest critics within the WSIS process, of the “market fundamentalism” inherent in global and national ICT policy where “pro-poor” interventions can only be justified through “pro-market” solutions [Gurumurthy 2005]. Feminist researchers who have conducted empirical studies of women workers in the south have argued that there is a need for greater state intervention in enabling as well as promoting educational and employment opportunities for women in ICTrelated fields – from chip manufacturers, to data processors and call centre workers, to computer programmers [Ng and Mitter 2005]. Feminist advocates from the south argued persistently for the need to the prioritise productive capacities of ICTs over the consumption of ICT services in the developing world, especially as they might impact marginalised communities. These examples demonstrate that redistributive claims over appropriate technology and basic ICT access are deeply entangled in claims for recognition marked by gender, class, race and nationality, among other differences. Similarly, two decades of struggles and debates over representation within transnational civil society, have given gender justice advocates a wider perspective on how to challenge the eurocentric claims of human rights without abandoning an emancipatory vision of social justice. Learning from these lessons is crucial if civil society engagement in the WSIS implementation and follow-up phase is to avoid the narrowest claims for recognition – the right to freedom of expression – to become the single issue that defines the ethical dimensions of the global information society.




1 This paper is based on arguments initially developed in a co-written book with Katharine Sarikakis (2006), Globalisation and Media Policy. My analysis of the WSIS process is based on a series of ongoing conversations with Katharine Sarikakis and Yuezhi Zhao. Gianpaolo Baiocchi’s careful reading and comments were also crucial for the completion of this paper. Research for this paper is based on analysis of WSIS-related documents, discussions with civil society participants and attendance of the WSIS meeting in Tunis, November 2005.

2 For a range of perspectives see the special issue of the journal Global Media and Communication, 1 (3), 2005.

3 The 2003 civil society declaration was published at the ITU site and referenced widely elsewhere, see: 03/wsis/doc/S03-WSIS-DOC-0004!!PDF-E.pdf.> At the time of publication of this article, the 2005 Tunis civil society declaration was still in the process of being finalised.

4 O’Siochru (2003) has shown the influence of organisations like <> which is a project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society.

5 See US state department press release on the Tunis meeting:

6 See Human rights watch on civil liberties and human right violations after September 11, 2001. <>.

7 For more on Incommunicado see their website at: <http://incommunicado. info/conference>.

8 A number of south-south research initiatives have been launched in response to the inadequacies of the WSIS process. See: Briefing Papers Information Society for the South: Vision or Hallucination, published by Instituto del Tercer Mundo (IteM), <>.


Accusoto, Pablo and Niki Johnson (2005): ‘Financing the Information Society in the South: A Global Public Goods Perspective’ in Instituto del Tercer Mundo (ITeM) Information Society for the South: Vision or Hallucination? Briefing Papers Towards the World Summit on the Information Society, Montevideo, ITeM, Uruguay, pp 13-46.

Association of Progressive Communications (APC) (2005): ‘Civil Society and the Tunis Declaration’ <m/informationpolicy/2005/11/civil_ society_t.html>.

Benhabib, Seyla (2004): Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Busaniche, Beatriz (2005): ‘Civil Society in the Carousel: Who Wins, Who Loses and Who Is Forgotten by the Multistakeholder Approach?’, Visions in Process II of the World Summit on the Information Society, Heinrich Boll Foundation, Berlin, pp 46-52.

Calabrese, Andrew (2004): ‘The Promise of Civil Society: A Global Movement for Communication Rights’, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, 18(3), pp 317-29.

Chakravartty, Paula and Katharine Sarikakis (2006): Globalisation and Media Policy, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

Chandhoke, Neera (2001): ‘The Limits of Global Civil Society’ in H Anheier et al (eds), Global Civil Society, Oxford University Press, pp 79-101.

Chatterjee, Partha (2004): The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World, Columbia University Press, New York.

Dany, Charlotte (2004): ‘Civil Society and the Preparations for the WSIS 2003: Did Input Lead to Influence?’, Heinrich-Böll-Foundation, <>.

Downing, John (2001): Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements, Sage, London.

Ermert, Monika (2005): ‘Intellectual Property Issues Kept of WSIS Agenda’, IP-Watch, <>.

Fraser, Nancy and Axel Honneth (2003): Redistribution or Recognition: A Political-Philosophical Exchange, Verso, New York.

George, Susanna (2005): ‘NGO Gender Strategies Working Group Intervention’, Isis International Manila, < onsite/wsis/ngo-gsw-intervention.html>.

Gupta, Akhil (2001): ‘The Song of the Non-Aligned World: Transnational Identities and the Reinscription of Space in Late Capitalism’ in Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson (eds), Culture Power Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, pp 179-202.

Gurumurthy, Anita (2005): ‘Tracking the Development Agenda at WSIS’ in Olga Drossou and Heiki Jensen (eds), Visions in Process II of the World Summit on the Information Society, Heinrich Boll Foundation, Berlin, pp 90-97.

Gurumurthy, Anita and Parminder Jeet Singh (2005): ‘Political Economy of the Information Society: A Southern View’ in Instituto del Tercer Mundo (ITeM), Information Society for the South: Vision or Hallucination? Montevideo, ITeM, Uruguay, pp 103-16.

Gurstein, Michael (2005): ‘Networking the Networked/Closing the Loop: Some Notes on WSIS II’, < sources/42>.

International Telecomunications Union (2005): Tunis Commitment; Tunis Agenda for the Information Society; Geneva Declaration of Principles; Geneva Plan of Action, <>.

Jenkins, Rob (2001): ‘Mistaking “Governance” for “Politics”: Foreign Aid, Democracy and the Construction of Civil Society’ in Sudipta Kaviraj and Sunil Khilnani (eds), Civil Society: History and Possibilities, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 250-68.

Jensen, Heiki (2005a): ‘Gender Equality and the Multistakeholder Approach: WSIS as Best Practice’ in Olga Drossou and Heiki Jensen (eds),Visions in Process II of the World Summit on the Information Society, Heinrich Boll Foundation, Berlin, pp 53-62.

– (2005b): ‘Gender Caucus in WSIS: Challenges for Gender Equality’, Information for Development, < gender.asp>.

Jorgensen, Rikke Frank and Meyrem Marzouki (2005): ‘Human Rights: The Missing Link’ in Olga Droussou and Heike Jensen (eds), Visions in Process II of the World Summit on the Information Society, Heinrich Boll Foundation, Berlin, pp 17-23.

Kabeer, Naila (2002): The Power to Choose: Bangladeshi Women and Labour Market Decisions in London and Dhaka, Verso, London.

– (2003): Reversed Realities: Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought, Verso, New York. Keck, Margeret and Kathryn Sikkink (1998): Activists without Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Klein, Hans (2005): ‘An Assessment of the WSIS Tunis 05 Outcomes’, November 23, 2005: < of_WSIS-II_Tunis-05.pdf>.

Kleinwachter, Wolfgang (2004): ‘Beyond ICANN vs ITU? How WSIS Tries to Enter the New Territory of Internet Governance’, Gazette: The International Journal for Communication Studies, 66 (3-4), pp 233-51.

Lovink, Geert (2002): Dark Fibre: Tracking Critical Internet Culture, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Mattelart, Armand (2002): Mapping World Communication: War, Progress, Culture, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

McLaughlin, Lisa (2004): ‘Feminism and the Political Economy of Transnational Public Space’, The Sociological Review, 52 (1), pp 156-75.

Mohanty, Chandra (2004): Feminism without Borders: Decolonising Theory, Practising Solidarity, Duke University Press, Durham.

Mundkur, Anu and Piyoo Kochar (2005): Mapping Gender in the Information Economy: From Reality to Discourse, October 31, 2005, Bangkok, Thailand, <>.

Mitter, Swasti (2002): ‘Globalisation and ICTs: Employment Opportunities for Women’, UNCTAD, <>.

Ng, Celia and Swasti Mitter (2005): ‘Valuing Women’s Voices’, Gender, Technology and Development, 9 (2), pp 209-33.

Ó Siochrú, Seán (2003): Global Governance of Information and Communications Technologies: Implications for Transnational Civil Society Networking, Social Science Research Council, New York, <>

Padovani, Claudia (2004): ‘Three Questions About WSIS: A Civil Society Perspective From Within’ ITI, 3 (4), pp 123-25.

Preston, William, Edward S Herman and Herbert I Schiller (1989): Hope and Folly: The United States and Unesco, 1945-85, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.

Toros, Hilmi (2005): ‘Big Business Shine at Information Society Summit’, Terraviva, December 10, < viewstory.asp?idnews=393>.

Young, Iris (2000): Inclusion and Democracy, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top