Centre for Internet & Society

On 13 September, the day before the fifth Internet Governance Forum opens, CIS is coorganising in Vilnius a meeting on Internet governance and human rights. One of the main aims of this meeting is to call attention to the crucial, yet in Internet governance often neglected, indivisibility of rights. In this blog post, Anja Kovacs uses this lens to illustrate how it can broaden as well reinvigorate our understanding of what remains one of the most pressing issues in Internet governance in developing countries to this day: that of access to the Internet.

One of the most attractive characteristics of the Internet – and perhaps also one of the most debated ones – is its empowering, democratising potential. In expositions in favour of access to the Internet for all, this potential certainly often plays a central role: as the Internet can help us to make our societies more open, more inclusive, and more democratic, everybody should be able to reap the fruits of this technology, it is argued. In other words, in debates on access to the Internet, most of us take as our starting point the desirability of such access, for the above reasons. But how justified is such a stance? Is an Internet-induced democratic transformation of our societies what is actually happening on the ground?

I would like to move away, in this blog post, from the more traditional approaches to the issue of access, where debates mostly veer towards issues of infrastructure (spectrum, backbones, last mile connectivity, …) or, under the banner of “diversity”, towards the needs of specific, disadvantaged communities (especially linguistic minorities and the disabled). To remind us more sharply of the issues at stake and of the wide range of human rights that need our active attention to make our dreams a reality, I would like to take a step back and to ask two fundamental questions regarding access: why might access be important? And what do we actually have access to?

Let me start, then, by exploring the first question: why, actually, is Internet access important? In his canonical work on the information age, and especially in the first volume on the rise of the network society, Manuel Castells (2000) has perhaps provided the most elaborate and erudite description of the ways in which new technologies are restructuring our societies and our lives. We are all all too familiar with the many and deep-seated ways in which the Internet changes the manner in which we learn, play, court, pay, do business, maintain relationships, dream, campaign. And yet, the exact nature of the divide created by the unequal distribution of technical infrastructure and access, despite being so very real, receives relatively little attention: this divide is not simply one of opportunities, it is crucially one of power. If in traditional Marxist analysis the problem was that the oppressed did not have access to the means of production, today, one could well argue, the problem is that they do not have access to the means of communication and information.

Indeed, the Internet is not something that is simply happening to us: there are people who are responsible for these new evolutions. And so it becomes important to ask: who is shaping the Internet? Who is creating this new world? Let us, by way of example, consider some figures relating to Internet use in India. So often hailed as the emerging IT superpower of the world, there are, by the end of 2009, according to official government figures, in this country of 1 billion 250 million people slightly more than 15 million Internet connections. Of these, only slightly more than half, or almost 8 million, are broadband connections – the rest are still dial-up ones (TRAI 2010). The number of Internet users is of course higher – one survey estimates that there are between 52 million and 71 million Internet users in urban areas, where the bulk of users is still located (IAMAI 2010). But while this is a considerable number, it remains a fraction of the population in a country so big. What these figures put in stark relief, then, is that the poor and marginalised are not so much excluded from the information society (in fact, many have to bear the consequences of new evolutions made possible by it in rather excruciating fashion), but rather, that they are fundamentally excluded from shaping the critical ways in which our societies are being transformed.

To have at least the possibility to access the Internet is, then, of central significance in this context for the possibility of participation it signals in the restructuring of our societies at the community, national and global level, and this in two ways: in the creation of visions of where our societies should be going, and in the actual shaping of the architecture of our societies in the information age.

If we agree that access attains great significance in this sense, then a second question poses itself, and that is: in practice, what exactly are we getting access to? This query should be of concern to all of us. With the increasing corporatisation of the Internet and the seemingly growing urges of governments on all continents to survey and control their citizens, new challenges are thrown up of how to nurture the growth of open, inclusive, democratic societies, that all of us are required to take an interest in.

Yet it is in the case of poor and marginalised people that the challenges are most pronounced.  Efforts to include them in the information society are disproportionately legitimised on the basis of the contribution these can make to improving their livelihoods. Initiatives, often using mobile technology, that allow farmers to get immediate information about the market prices of the produce they are intending to sell, are perhaps the most well-known and oft-cited examples in this category. Other efforts aim to improve the information flow from the government to citizens: India has set up an ambitious network of Common Service Centres, for example, that aim to greatly facilitate the access of citizens to particular government services, such as obtaining birth or caste certificates – and going by first indications, this also seems to be succeeding in practice. Only rarely, however, do initiatives to “include” the poor in the information society address them as holistic beings who do not only have economic lives, but political, emotional, creative and intellectual existences as well.  This is not to say that economic issues are not of importance. But by highlighting only this aspect of poor people's lives, we promote a highly impoverished understanding of their existences.

The focus on a limited aspect of the poor's identity - important as that aspect may be - has a function, however: it makes it possible to hide from view the extremely restrictive terms on which poor people are currently being integrated into the information society. Even initiatives such as the Common Service Centres are in fact based on a public-private-partnership model that explicitly aims to “align [..] social and commercial goals” (DIT 2006: 1), and in effect subordinates government service design to the requirements of the CSC business model (Singh 2008). The point is not simply that we need strong privacy and data protection policies in such a context – although we clearly do. There is a larger issue here, which is that efforts to include the poor in the information society, in the present circumstances, really seem to simply integrate them more closely into a capitalist system over which they have little control, or to submit them to ever greater levels of government and corporate surveillance. Their own capacity to give shape to the system in which they are “included”, despite the oft-heralded capacities of the Internet to allow greater democratic participation and to turn everybody into a producer and distributor, as well as a consumer, remains extremely limited.

Such tendencies have not gone unnoticed. For example, unlike in many other parts of the world, social movements in India fighting against dams, special economic zones or mining operations in forest areas - all initiatives that lead to large-scale displacement – have not embraced technology as enthusiastically as one might have expected. There are various reasons for this. Within Indian nationalism, there have always been strands deeply critical of technology, with Gandhi perhaps their most illustrious proponent. But for many activists, technology often also already comes with an ideological baggage: an application such as Twitter, for example, in so many of its aspects is clearly manufactured by others, for others, drawing on value sets that activists often in many ways are reluctant to embrace. And such connotations only gain greater validity because of the intimate connections that exist in India between the IT boom and neoliberalism: technology has great responsibility for many of the trends and practices these activists are fighting against. While the Internet might have made possible many new publics, most movements do not – as movements – recognise these publics as their own (Kovacs, forthcoming).

To some extent, these are of course questions of the extent of access that people are granted. But they also raise the important issue of the value structure of the Internet. Efforts at inclusion always take for granted a standard that is already set. But what if the needs and desires of the many billions that still need to be included are not served by the Internet as it exists? What if, for it to really work for them, they need to be able to make the Internet a different place than the one we know today? While it is obvious that different people will give different answers in different parts of the world, such debates are complicated tremendously by the fact that it is no longer sufficient to reach a national consensus on the issues under discussion, as was the case in earlier eras. The global nature of the Internet's infrastructure requires that the possibility of differing opinions, too, needs to be facilitated at the global level. What are the consequences of this for the development of democracy?

For access to the Internet to be substantively meaningful from a human rights perspective in the information age, it is crucial, then, that at a minimum, the openness of the Internet is ensured at all levels. Of course, openness can be considered a value in itself. But perhaps more importantly, at the moment, it is the only way in which the possibility of a variety of answers to the pressing question of what shape our societies should take in the information age can emerge. Open standards and the portability of data, for example, are crucial if societies are to continue to decide on the role corporations should play in their public life, rather than having corporations de facto rule the roost. Similarly, under no circumstances should anyone be cut off from the Internet, if people are to participate in the public life of the societies of which they are members. And these are not just concerns for developing countries: if recent incidents from France to Australia are anything to go by, new possibilities facilitated by the Internet have, at least at the level of governments, formed the impetus for a clear shift to the right of the political spectrum in many developed countries. In the developed world, too, the questions of access and what it allows for are thus issues that should concern all. In the information age, human rights will only be respected if such respect is already inscribed in the very architecture of its central infrastructure itself.

List of References

Castells, Manuel (2000). The Rise of the Network Society, 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Department of Information Technology (DIT) (2006). Guidelines for the Implementation of Common Services Centers (CSCs) Scheme in States. New Delhi: Department of Information Technology, Government of India.

Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) (2010). I-Cube 2009-2010: Internet in India. Mumbai: Internet and Mobile Association of India.

Kovacs, Anja (forthcoming). Inquilab 2.0? Reflections on Online Activism in India (working title). Bangalore: Centre for Internet and Society.

Singh, Parminder Jeet (2008). Recommendations for a Meaningful and Successful e-Governance in India. IT for Change Policy Brief, IT for Change, Bangalore.

Telecom Regulatory Auhority of India (TRAI) (2010). The Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicators, October-December 2009. New Delhi: Telecom Regulatory Auhority of India.


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