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Back | Programme Area: Technology and Society (2000 - 2009)

ICTs and Social Development: The Global Policy Context

In conjunction with the remarkable growth and integration of the ICT industry over the past decade, world communications politics and policies are undergoing profound change. For almost a hundred years, since the earliest international agreements facilitating intercontinental radio and telephone communication, the role of international institutions has primarily been to co-ordinate national policies, independently shaped by sovereign governments. Today, however, the space for independent national policy making is shrinking; and the international policy context increasingly takes precedence over all others.

In this paper, Cees Hamelink analyses the changing international environment for resolving outstanding issues in the information technology field. He begins with a discussion of the decade-long process of negotiation culminating in the World Telecommunications Agreement, through which the telecommunications industry has gradually come to accept progressive liberalization and privatisation. This affects the availability, accessibility and affordability of ICT infrastructures and services in all countries around the world, as do negotiations in three other fields briefly covered in the paper: reform of the account rate settlement system for international calls; control over satellite services; and management of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Other international policy debates, such as those related to the protection of intellectual property rights (IPRs), affect the diversity of information and knowledge that can be made freely available to the public. In recent years, the international regime has moved away from the public interest dimensions of IPRs and has tended to privilege the economic interests of owners. At the same time, access to a wide array of information is seriously threatened by the strong trend toward consolidation within the world info-com market and the absence of credible competition policy in many national contexts.

Hamelink also considers new issues emerging in connection with electronic commerce, including problems of taxation and legal jurisdiction over companies operating at a transnational level, control over cryptography, the protection of privacy and the problem of how to validate digital signatures. Finally, he explains some of the institutional issues to be resolved in the process of devising a system of international governance for the Internet.

Transnational corporations are playing an increasingly visible role in the resolution of these questions. In the process, the locus of much policy making is shifting from governments to private business associations. The relative importance of various international organizations in shaping ICT policy is also changing, as communications politics shift from traditional venues like the International Telecommunications Union, UNESCO and the World Intellectual Property Organization to the World Trade Organization. This shift in policy is symptomatic of a growing tendency to speak of information as a commodity, to be provided to customers, rather than as a public good made available to citizens.

This is a troubling development. What can be done to improve the quality of governance in the ICT field, and to reinforce the public-interest dimensions of policymaking on information and communications issues? In the last section of his paper, Hamelink discusses some principles of action for those who want to ensure that ICTs will be used to benefit as wide a segment of world society as possible.

He suggests, first of all, that the debate not be framed in terms of a false dichotomy between state and market. Neither governmental institutions nor market forces are capable, in themselves, of guaranteeing adequate service to the public at large. The challenge, in both public and private scenarios, is to place the public interest at the centre of policy considerations and to ensure that adequate mechanisms for public accountability exist. This is primarily a national debate. But since global forces are now so powerful, it is also necessary for policy makers and citizens who share common concerns to mobilize across borders and regions, and to insist upon good governance at the international level.

Policy making within the principal international organizations dealing with ICT issues should be marked by transparency, accountability and broadly based civic participation. The representation of “civil society” in international fora nevertheless raises complex substantive and logistical questions, including the sheer impossibility of ensuring that any NGO or group of NGOs can adequately represent the range of interests present in “global civil society”. Since different issues require different modalities of intervention, Hamelink suggests a flexible approach to public representation in international organizations and events, through which ad-hoc coalitions form around specific problem areas. An interesting model in this regard is the opposition mobilized from 1996 onward—to a large extent through the use of the Internet—against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). An important characteristic of this kind of activism is its success in developing constructive alternative proposals.

Civic intervention is obviously rather meaningless if people are inadequately informed. Therefore there is an urgent need for well-designed programmes of ICT education, both of a formal and informal nature, which go beyond technical training and encourage critical thinking about the social implications of information and communication technologies.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Oct 1999
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD