Civil Society Organisations and Internet Governance in Asia – Open Review

cis-india – This is a book section written for the third volume (2000-2010) of the Asia Internet History series edited by Prof. Kilnam Chon. The pre-publication text of the section is being shared here to invite suggestions for addition and modification. Please share your comments via email sent to raw[at]cis-india[dot]org with ‘Civil Society Organisations and Internet Governance in Asia – Comments’ as the subject line. This text is published under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.

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Preparations for the World Summit on the Information Society

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) conferences organized by the United Nations in Geneva (2003) and Tunis (2005) initiated crucial platforms and networks, some temporary and some continued, for various non-governmental actors to intensively and periodically take part in the discussions of governance of Internet and various related activities towards the goals of inclusive development and human rights. Many of the civil society organizations taking part in the WSIS conferences, as well as the various regional and thematic preparatory meetings and seminars, had little prior experience in the topic of Internet governance. They were entering these conversations from various perspectives, such as local developmental interventions, human and cultural rights activism, freedom and diversity of media, and gender and social justice. With backgrounds in such forms of applied practice and theoretical frameworks, members of these civil society organizations often faced a difficult challenge in articulating their experiences, insights, positions, and suggestions in terms of the (then) emerging global discourse of Internet governance and that of information and communication technologies (ICTs) as instruments of development. At the WSIS: An Asian Response Meeting in 2002, Susanna George, (then) Executive Director of Isis International, Manila, succinctly expressed this challenge being faced by the members of civil society organizations:

For some feminist activists however, including myself, it has felt like trying to squeeze my concerns into a narrow definition of what gender concerns in ICTs are. I would like it to Cinderella’s ugly sister cutting off her toe to fit into the dainty slipper of gender concerns in ICTs. The development ball, it seems, can only accommodate some elements of what NGO activists, particularly those from the South, are concerned about in relation to new information and communications technologies. (George 2002)

The above mentioned seminar, held in Bangkok, Thailand, on November 22-24, 2002, was a crucial early meeting for the representatives from Asian civil society organizations to share and shape their understanding and positions before taking part in the global conversations during the following years. The meeting was organised by Bread for All (Switzerland), Communication Rights in the Information Society Campaign (Netherlands), Forum-Asia (Thailand), and World Association for Christian Communication (United Kingdom), as a preparatory meeting before the Asia-Pacific Regional Conference of WSIS, with 34 organizations from 16 Asian countries taking part in it. The Final Document produced at the end of this seminar was quite a remarkable one. It highlighted the simultaneity of Asia as one of the global centres of the information economy and the everyday reality of wide-spread poverty across the Asian countries, and went on to state that the first principle for the emerging global information society should be that the ‘[c]ommunication rights are fundamental to democracy and human development’ (The World Summit on the Information Society: An Asian Response 2002). It proposed the following action items for the efforts towards a global inclusive information society: 1) strengthen community, 2) ensure access, 3) enhance the creation of appropriate content, 4) invigorate global governance, 5) uphold human rights, 6) extend the public domain, 7) protect and promote cultural and linguistic diversity, and 8) ensure public investment in infrastructure (ibid.).

Immediately after this Conference, several Asian civil society organizations attended the Asian Civil Society Forum, organised as part of the Conference of Non-governmental Organizations in Consultative Relations with the United Nations (CONGO), held in Bangkok, Thailand, during December 9-13, 2002. Representatives of Dhaka Ahsania Mission (Bangladesh), OneWorld South Asia (India), GLOCOM (Japan), Foundation for Media Alternative (Philippines), Korean Progressive Network – JINBONET (Republic of Korea), Friedrich Naumann Foundation (Singapore), International Federation of University Women (Switzerland), and Forum Asia (Regional) drafted a Joint Statement emphasising that a ‘broad-based participation of civil society, especially from those communities which are excluded, marginalized and severely deprived, is critical in defining and building such a [true communicative, just and peaceful] society’ (Aizu 2002). In the very next month, the Asia-Pacific Regional Conference was held in Tokyo during January 13-15, 2003, ‘to develop a shared vision and common strategies for the “Information Society’ (WSIS Executive Secretariat 2003: 2). The conference saw participation of representatives from 47 national governments, 22 international organizations, 54 private sector agencies, and 116 civil society organizations across the Asia-Pacific region. The Tokyo Declaration, the final document prepared at the conclusion of the Conference, recognized that:

[T]he Information Society must … facilitate full utilization of information and communication technologies (ICT) at all levels in society and hence enable the sharing of social and economic benefits by all, by means of ubiquitous access to information networks, while preserving diversity and cultural heritage. (Ibid.: 2)

Further, it highlighted the following priority areas of action: 1) infrastructure development, 2) securing affordable, universal access to ICTs, 3) preserving linguistic and cultural diversity and promoting local content, 4) developing human resources, 5) establishing legal, regulatory and policy frameworks, 6) ensuring balance between intellectual property rights (IPR) and public interest, 7) ensuring the security of ICTs, and 8) fostering partnerships and mobilizing resources. It is not difficult to see how the focus of necessary actions shifted from an emphasis on concerns of community and human rights, and public investments and commons, towards those of legal and policy mechanisms, multi-partner delivery of services, and intellectual property rights. Civil society organizations, expectedly, felt sidelined in this Conference, and decided to issue a join statement of Asian civil society organizations to ensure that their positions are effectively presented. The first two topics mentioned in this document were: 1) ‘[c]ommunication rights should be fully recognized as a fundamental and universal human right to be protected and promoted in the information society,’ and 2) ‘[t]he participation of civil society in the information society at all levels should be ensured and sustained, from policy planning to implementation, monitoring and evaluation’ (UNSAJ et al 2003). The joint statement was endorsed by 30 civil society organizations: UDDIPAN (Bangladesh); COMFREL (Cambodia); ETDA (East Timor); The Hong Kong Council of Social Services (Hong Kong); Food India, IT for Change (India); Indonesian Infocom Society (Indonesia); Active Learning, CPSR, Forum for Citizens’ Television and Media, JTEC, Kyoto Journal, Ritsumeikan University Media Literacy Project, UNSAJ (Japan); Computer Association Nepal, Rural Area Development Programme (Nepal); APC Women’s Networking Support Programme, Foundation for Media Alternatives, ISIS International (Philippines); Citizens’ Action Network, Korean Progressive Network – Jinbonet, Labor News Production, ZAK (Republic of Korea); e-Pacificka Consulting (Samoa); National University of Singapore (Singapore); Public Television Service, Taiwan Association for Human Rights (Taiwan); Asian-South Pacific Bureau for Adult Education, FORUM ASIA, and TVE Asia Pacific (Regional) (Ibid.).

Participation in the WSIS Process

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