geert lovink on Sat, 12 Jul 2003 06:04:06 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Sasha Costanza-Chock: WSIS and the neoliberal agenda

(posted to nettime with the permission of the author. /geert)

From: "Sasha Costanza-Chock" <>


Sasha Costanza-Chock
Presentation for OURmedia III, Barranquilla
[Conference info at:]

Thank you for inviting me here, I'm truly honored. First, let me apologize
that my presentation will be in English. I'll try to answer questions in
Spanish. The title of my discussion is "The World Summit on the Information
Society, the Neoliberal Agenda, and Counterproposals from 'Civil Society.'"
I'll begin with a quick overview of the Summit, follow by describing
emerging alternative, parallel, and countersummit plans, and end with a
perspective that looks beyond the Summit towards building a real global
movement for communication rights.


The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) is a UN Summit that is
being organized by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The
Summit has been constructed according to a so-called 'flower petal' model,
with a series of regional meetings feeding into preparatory conferences,
followed by a two-phase World Summit: in December 2003, Geneva, a
Declaration and Action Plan will be agreed upon, and then in 2005, in Tunis,
there is supposed to be a review of accomplishments since 2003 and a renewal
of commitments by all the participants [see ]. According to the
rhetoric, each 'petal' (regional meeting, preparatory conference, and
Summit) is open to 'tripartite participation,' meaning that the governments,
private sector, and
'civil society' are all supposed to have a voice. In theory, then, the
Summit is a much more open model for a global forum than most UN meetings or
bodies. In what sense, then, is it appropriate or realistic to see the WSIS
as another instrument consistent with the neoliberal agenda?

To begin with, it is important to understand that the ITU has always served
governments and the powerful telecom conglomerates. Originally set up in
1865 to regulate telegraph standards, later radio, and then satellite orbit
allocation, the ITU took on the Summit because it has recently been losing
power to the telecoms that increasingly set their own rules and to the
Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which was
created by the US government to regulate the Internet domain name system.
The ITU is now facing heavy budget cuts and is desperate to remain a player
in the global regulation of Information and Communication Technologies
(ICTs). Given the background of the ITU, it's no surprise to find the
clearest vision of the Summit as a plank in neoliberalism coming straight
from the horse's mouth. Yoshio Utsumi, Secretary-General of the ITU, has
stated at repeated regional conferences, and I quote:

     "Developing policy frameworks for cyberspace to deal with issues of
cybercrime, security, taxation, IP protection, or privacy - is something
like establishing a new government in the New World. I recall the early
history of the colonial states in the USA or the story of El Dorado in
Spanish [sic] America. But cyberspace is an invisible world and much more
complex. Its inhabitants are not only individuals but include corporations,
governments, and even sovereign states. They require new mechanisms for
cooperation. We need a much more stronger [sic] political will to solve the
issues than our ancestors [sic] did in establishing a state in their newly
conquered territories"
[Bucharest, 7 November 2002: available at ].

We can see from this statement the imperialist mindset with which the
leadership of the ITU are approaching the so-called 'information society.'
They are not, of course, the only ones with such a vision. The US position
is also clear:

1. Crack down on 'digital piracy' in the developing world, in order to
maximize profits for the US based multinational software and media content

2. Fight so-called 'cyberterrorism,' in other words normalize electronic
surveillance across the globe and extend the electronic eavesdropping
provisions of the USA Patriot Act to the rest of the world. (Of course this
already exists in the form of ECHELON, but ECHELON is illegal. The global
adoption of an instrument on 'cyberterror' would be a terrible step).

The agenda of the private sector mostly overlaps with and informs the
position of the US government: ensure the enclosure of the knowledge commons
in the form of Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) held by corporations,
rather than creators, and ensure the liberalization of information and
communication systems everywhere [see the contribution to WSIS Content and
Themes by the Coordinating Committee of Business Interlocutors at ].

To the most powerful actors on this stage, then, cyberspace is a lawless
frontier to be tamed and fenced in under the property rights and
surveillance regimes. The Summit will envision a rollout of infrastructure
across the globe, of course with lip service to universal access, but only
under conditions that ensure the maximization of profit for the
multinationals and the normalization of the paranoid panoptic pretensions of
the USA/UK ECHELON surveillance system. In place of a global knowledge
commons, we will have a crackdown on so-called 'digital piracy' in the
developing world. In place of the emergence of a strong coordinated global
civil society, we have the
chilling effect of state surveillance apparatus, with the US Empire's war
dogs leading the pack towards Total Information Awareness [now renamed
'Terrorist Information Awareness:' see ].


Does all this mean that the WSIS agenda is entirely set by the wealthy
nations and the private sector? Can it be dismissed as yet another tool of
neoliberalism? It's not so simple. For one thing, the most powerful
nations and the multinationals have been fairly uninterested in the entire
Summit process, sending low-level representatives, if anyone, to preparatory
meetings. They seem to be mostly ignoring the WSIS, focusing on other forums
like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and World Intellectual Property
Organization (WIPO) to push the privatization of information and
communication systems.

At the same time, there have certainly been positive developments within the
Summit process. There have been head nods to 'civil society' participation,
which means some formal accreditation for NGOs and others, and small
openings for crafting official UN language. The supposed goal of 'bridging
the digital divide,' while at best a nave formulation that obscures the
underlying economic divide that increases as a result of neoliberal
policies, is still a positive ideal, and we should welcome a stated
commitment by governments to achieve universal access. There is language
encouraging governments to adopt Open Source software (although not
Free/Libre Open Source Software - FLOSS - and anyway this will be blocked
for the most part by the US and the private sector.) There is language that
emphasizes attention to power inequalities, gender, youth, indigenous,
migrants, and other marginalized peoples. We also might expect some funds to
be made available for development communication projects as a result of the
WSIS action plan; at least a few of these projects will likely be well
conceived and implemented and will bring access, tools, and skills to
underserved populations.

However, the negative experience so far is also clear: 'civil society' has
been shut out of the process, civil society and the private sector have been
formally lumped together [which points to a deep question about the
definition of the so-called 'civil society' which I don't have time to
address here], and there are few funds for participation by
people from the 2/3 world (global South, plus poor and marginalized peoples
from the North). The WSIS is shaping up to be an ineffective talk shop with
no teeth. That may turn out to be a blessing, since human rights are not at
the core - crucially, the Draft Declaration section on infrastructure is
informed instead by the trickle-down neoliberal vision cloaked in the
language of 'enabling market environment' and 'public-private partnership,'
code words for the privatization of information and communication systems
[see the Draft Declaration, section 6, at
1-TD-GEN-0001!!PDF-E.pdf ].

To be fair, the whole question of 'civil society' participation has been
complicated by the decision to allow individual private firms to register as
civil society participants, in addition to their representation by delegates
from trade associations (and often, by the government delegates as well.)
While Canada, Australia, some African and Latin American countries, the EU,
and a few others have all pushed for 'civil society and private sector'
contributions in the form of working papers, China and Pakistan blocked this
proposal during both PrepComs. While some countries may be trying to shut
out civil society in order to avoid discussion of internal human rights
violations, the conflation of the private sector with civil society also
resulted in some more progressive national delegates opposing the meaningful
inclusion of 'civil society' on the valid grounds that this would open a
back door to greater corporate influence. It is sometimes difficult to sort
out which instances of exclusion are due to careful planning by the ITU
Secretariat or by national delegates, and which are due to bumbling
Secretariat inexperience in dealing with civil society. The upshot, though,
is clear: civil society [in any meaningful or progressive sense of the term]
has been marginalized and excluded at every step of the way.


In response, a variety of groups have already begun planning alternative,
parallel, countersummit, and protest activities around the WSIS:

     European Independent Media Centers, NoBorder Network: These groups met
in April (along with delegates from the CRIS: Communication Rights in the
Information Society campaign) to discuss an alternative conference the
weekend before WSIS, to bring together political and media activists,
artists, and cultural workers. They envision a space where "the
antiglobalization movements meets the tactical media movement," and will
facilitate skillshares and tactical media laboratories before and during the
Summit, with radio, TV channels, and web coverage. They have issued a call
to 'refuse and resist war and infowar, border management and digital rights
management, restrictions on freedom of movement and freedom of
[ ].

     US Media Activists: In the USA, the Summit has not really been on the
agenda. The press has completely ignored it, the private sector is only
sending low-level representatives so far, it's unclear how involved the Bush
administration will be, and the social movements and media activists who do
work on communications have all been focused on the June 2nd Federal
Communications Commission decision to allow further consolidation of US
media systems in the hands of corporate conglomerates [see ]. Still, some activists and organizations
are trying to build on the momentum of the campaign against media monopoly
to educate US activists, advocacy groups, and policymakers on the global
implications of US communications policy, and to link the domestic issues to
the international movement for communication rights.

For example, Free Press Media Reform Network, an umbrella organization that
hopes to link policymakers with grassroots media activists, will hold their
formative conference in Madison, Wisconsin, in November 2003. While the
focus will be on US media policy reform, the organizers are interested in
making links to the global communication rights movement. They will include
an international strand within their conference that may include discussion
of the WSIS and alternatives, possibly generating input to events in
December [see].

There has also been discussion of a 3rd Break the Media Blackout event.
Organizers from the media arm of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights
Campaign are interested in a US conference to take place the weekend before
the Summit, parallel to the alternative activities in Geneva that are being
organized by the IndyMedia Centers and NoBorders Network and hopefully
linked to them. They envision poor people's organizations meeting with media
activists for skillshares and hands-on tactical media labs as well as
education on the global communication rights/media justice movement. They
hope to create some kind of statement or message to be delivered in Geneva
[see for information about the 2002 Break the
Media Blackout Conference].

Some discussions have also begun around parallel activities in San Francisco
and in Austin, Texas.

     World Forum on Communication Rights: Perhaps most exciting, the
Communication Rights in the Information Society [CRIS: ] campaign has proposed the launch of a World Forum
on Communication Rights. To be held the second day of the WSIS, December
11th, this Forum is conceived not as a one-time event but as the expression
of an ongoing process. The first World Forum on
Communication Rights will aim to 1. create a Declaration on Communication
Rights, with reference to and synthesis of past declarations; 2. provide
examples of violations and successful implementations of Communication
Rights; 3. create a Set of Actions. The World Forum on Communication Rights
will deal with the public domain and alternatives to IPRs, the public sphere
and media, the closure of the internet, the promotion of Free/Libre Open
Source Software, governance innovation and grassroots communications
technology [contribute to the wiki workpages of the WFCR at; view the initial proposal
of the WFCR at].

     World Social Forum: In Porto Alegre, participants in the 'media,
culture, and counter-hegemony' strand agreed that a countersummit would be
important, alongside continued 'inside' participation [see]. In addition, a discussion has
been growing around the possibility of a Thematic Social Forum on
Communication Rights, perhaps to take place in 2005 as an alternative to the
Phase II WSIS meeting in Tunis.

This last proposal takes us to the most important point: if WSIS is best
thought of as an organizing opportunity, rather than a forum we can really
participate in or a body that will have real power, what are we organizing
towards in the long run?


For those of us trying to build a global movement for communication rights,
WSIS is most useful as an agenda-setting event, organizing impetus, and news
hook, not as a democratic forum where our concerns will be addressed. It is
an opportunity to strengthen the links between the anticorporate
globalization (global justice) movement and the fight against wholesale
privatization of information and communication systems, or the fight for
communication rights. The global justice movement can't proceed without
tackling this area; and of course, communication rights can't be won if the
movement stays within a relatively small circle of NGOs, media activists,
and academics.

To that end, WSIS can be thought of as a potential catalyst for us to
develop our own global organizing process and structure around communication
rights. As MJ Kim of jinbonet has pointed out, the corporate sector has
their own agenda: they are focused on IPRs and privatization of ICT
infrastructure, and they lobby hard in every
Venue [1]. The US has its own agenda, focused on surveillance and
cyberterrorism, and they will also lobby hard everywhere. These powerful
actors constantly venue-shift, taking the battle from national legislatures
to multilateral agreements, from the FTAA to ICANN, from WIPO to the WTO

The global justice movement needs its own space to develop a communications
agenda, in order to take the fight to each institution, body, and process,
and to the streets in front of each as well. In a way, we need our own
version of the ITU - an international forum where the network of networks
can develop a progressive agenda on communication rights, with concrete
measures and plans of action. WSIS is an opportunity to launch such a forum;
to bring together different generations of media activists, strengthen our
networks, and voice clear opposition to both state and corporate control of
media and communication systems.

To that end, social movements and media activists who are trying to decide
whether to engage with WSIS at this point should consider how to best use
the event to their advantage, but not get bogged down in spending most of
their resources trying to influence the official Declaration and Plan of
Action. At the same time, we need to
be very clear: It would be shameful to sign on to the Declaration and Action
Plan as they are unfolding at this point. By the end of PrepCom 3 we should
have a clear counterproposal that denounces the privatization of
communication systems, the airwaves and satellite orbits, and the fruits of
human creativity and knowledge, demands the removal of the neoliberal
language from the Declaration and Action Plan, and threatens a walkout of
the Summit itself if these conditions are not met. [They will not, of
course, be met.]

If a walkout does become necessary, it should not take place at PrepCom3 but
should be delayed until the Summit, since it is a card that can only be
played once and will make a much greater impression in December- the
PrepComs are not newsworthy, the WSIS December meeting may be to some
degree. There, as many civil society organizations as possible (and if
possible, national delegates as well) should stage a walkout on the second
day - perhaps from WSIS to the World Forum on Communication Rights. In one
possible scenario, this would be a highly visible, physical movement of
people from one venue to another. Others argue for a less 'confrontational'
style; a kind of open invitation to the parallel forum.

A brief point about the possibility of more confrontational tactics: at the
moment, it doesn't seem necessary to try and shut WSIS down, in part because
the Declaration and Plan of Action is still very unclear, and also because
it probably won't have much impact. It seems more important to articulate
our own vision and strengthen the foundation for our own movement. On the
other hand, the symbolic significance could change:
especially if Bush attends, it would be worth amplifying confrontation to
take a stand against US imperialism in all its manifestations - military,
economic, informational - and for communication rights and media justice.

Regardless of the actual form of the walkout, the first day of the Summit
should be used to make the intention clear to the full assembly - if
possible, one of the Civil Society speaking slots on the first day should be
used to announce the demands, the parallel process, and a post-World Forum
on Communication Rights press conference. That press conference should
provide statements not only from representatives of those in attendance, but
also videotaped or live remote statements from key civil society groups,
social movements, and figures from around the globe.

Finally, all of the opportunities provided by the Summit notwithstanding, we
need to remember that the key decisions about privatization of audiovisual
content in the near future will be taken elsewhere, for example at the WTO
in Cancun in September, where proposals have already been introduced by the
USA, Switzerland, and
Brazil [4] to liberalize the AV content industries. In response, Mexican
activists are planning an alternative media-tech convergence at the Cancun
Ministerial [see wiki workpages at]
Interventions at the WTO and WSIS could be keys to galvanizing a strong
communication rights movement [5]. This movement can then intervene in other


To sum up: the Summit has thus far excluded 'civil society.' We can't let
the ITU, powerful nations, and the private sector use civil society to give
a stamp of legitimacy to a thinly veiled neoliberal agenda of privatization
of information and communication systems, privatization of common resources
like the electromagnetic spectrum and satellite orbits, erosion of the
knowledge commons, and the elimination of communication rights. Rather than
boycott the Summit, though, we should participate, using WSIS as an
organizing opportunity to develop our own alternatives, strengthen our own
vision and plan of action for demanding communication rights, and linking
this movement to the global justice movement.

I think it's a waste of time to spend our efforts at WSIS, or at the World
Forum on Communication Rights, hammering out carefully crafted statements
line by line. We should approach it as a moment for political theater and an
organizing opportunity, which means thinking about ongoing initiatives that
can be launched there. We should think about emerging from WSIS with the
basis of an organizing structure for a more democratic Forum of our own. The
World Forum on Communication Rights is a step in this direction. A Thematic
Social Forum on Communication Rights / Media Justice, possibly to be held in
2005 in counterpoint to the second phase of WSIS Tunis, could be another
step on the long road to communication rights for all. Thank you.

Sasha Costanza-Chock:


[1] The Coordinating Committee of Business Interlocutors (CCBI) has recently
released a statement with a 6-point program: "1. Focus on Information
Society Building Blocks; 2. Recognize the Importance of Pro-Competitive
Policies and Private Sector Investment; 3. Link ICT investment to economic
development, social growth and poverty reduction; 4. Incorporate Measuring
and Accounting tools in Summit pronouncements; 5. Prescribe National ICT
Strategies; 6. Acknowledge the critical role of Business in the Future of
the Information Society"

[2] For example, at the WTO ministerial meeting in Cancun in September, the
US will try once again to overturn what is now known as the 'cultural
exception' and bring the audiovisual sector into the WTO [see the US
proposal at]. If
successful, this will mean the elimination of national funding for content
production and of quotas on foreign content. Activists are already planning
a day of tactical media skillshares combined with policy education, to take
place just before the ministerial and train the assembled movements in how
to report on their own days of action during the meeting: see the wiki page
for Cancun Alternative Media-Tech Convergence:

[3] A note here about the term 'media justice,' and the question of racism
in the media: media racism should be central to media justice movement, just
as environmental racism was central to the emergence of the environmental
justice movement (Art McGee has pointed this out). Use WSIS to launch an
international media justice movement, led by people of color. (Conference on
Racism and Communications, as part of WFCR?).

[4] By the way, I believe the proposal from Brazil came from the old
administration, and someone should lobby the Lula administration to retract
it. The Brazilian proposal is available here:

[5] I don't know whether audiovisual content or other aspects of media and
communications systems will fall under the FTAA; if so, that's
another important space to intervene.

* If you're interested in organizing alternatives to WSIS, join "A discussion list for people planning
alternatives to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) including
another summit, countersummit, walkout, protest, or other strategies to
advance communication as a human right and as a public good. To counter
corporate hijacking of the WSIS for private interest or Bushwacking of the
WSIS in the name of a 'war on cyberterrorism.'"  - Subscribe:

** Sasha Costanza-Chock recently finished his MA in communication at the
Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. He's a media
artist, activist, and organizer. He's moving to Berkeley or Oakland in
August and is looking for a place to live...

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