Freedom of Expression: Civil Society and Public Policy

A major stumbling block facing policy makers today is the disconnect between civil society and the policy making process. The WSIS CS defined civil society as:

“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 defense and promotion of social, economic and cultural interests and for mutual benefit.”[1]

This week’s readings focus on freedom of expression from a policy standpoint, or more precisely, how civil society can influence policy and make their voice heard and acknowledged.  The readings primarily come from 2005, which in internet time, as discussed during the social media entries, is a lifetime. However, many of the same problems still hold true. First and foremost, if people are going to affect policy, then they have to have a way to attend and participate in the planning processes.

The Internet Governance Project argues that the internet can be used to bring policy to the public, and vice versa.[2] This statement argument is simplistic and a bit obvious now, where the internet is used for everything, but that in no way makes this argument less true. An absolutely critical factor for policy is legitimacy. However, in order to have legitimacy, there needs to be a large degree of transparency, which is largely achieved through a free and effective flow of information.[3] Traditionally, policy makers reached out through paper and face-to-face methods, but these methods, as the Internet Governance Project points out, have very severe limitations: 1) documents are not always easily accessible, 2) organizations have to be physically present during all stages in order to make an input, 3) limited number of people who can be involved, 4) the number of people who can be involved is especially limited in developing countries where would-be participants may lack the resources to attend meetings.[4]

Forums of all kinds are starting to make it easier for people to participate, yet it is still far from equally accessible (for more information about internet accessibility, refer to the week of September 23rd’s blogs). Unfortunately, this means that civil society’s freedom of expression is also limited and unequal. Additionally, people are diverse in their interests and geographic locations, which makes it hard to put them into a “coherent and representative civil society tapestry.”[5]

Derrick Cogburn wrote three recommendations for WSIS, but they are excellent recommendations that should be applied to more than just the WSIS:
1) “[E]nsure that multiple mechanisms of virtual participation are available to all aspects of [the] preparatory process.”
2) “[Build] the capacity for delegations around the world to understand many of the complex thematic issues that are emerging.”
3) “[C]ivil society should engage in the difficult work of dealing with the questions of representation, legitimacy, and structures within the sector.”[6]

If more policy making processes took into account these recommendations and made more concerted efforts to give civil society a role in the planning process, then freedom of expression would absolutely improve. Moreover, the processes could even find themselves improved due to the power of crowd sourcing. The internet and mobile technology has increased tremendously in the last decade, and will only continue to improve. Let’s hope public policy follows close behind.

[1] Derrick Cogburn, “Diversity Matters, Even at a Distance: Evaluating the Impact of Computer-Mediated Communication on Civil Society Participation in the World Summit on the Information Society,” The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Information Technologies and International Development (2005): 19.
[2] “A Global Alliance for ICT: Bringing Policy Making to the Public and the Public to Policy Making,” Internet Government Project (8 February 2005): 1.
[3] Ibid, 3.
[4] Ibid, 3.
[5] Cogburn, “Diversity Matters,” 20.
[6] Ibid, 37.

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