Freedom of Expression & Technology

Coming from a country where “Freedom of Expression” is scarce, I more often think of this issue from a political angle and put it into different boxes labeled by nation-states. Therefore I found this week’s readings quite interesting because they explore other important aspects of freedom of expression: how international society can impact policymaking and what technical measures we can employ to help each group voice their opinion on the global stage.

The role of World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), as Hans Klein mentions in his paper Understanding WSIS: An Institutional Analysis of the UN World Summit on the Information Society, is to challenge the global Internet governance regime. Now Freedom of Expression, or any other Internet governance issue, is no longer locked in a box, but placed on a big round table surrounded by multi-stakeholders from all over the world.

Klein also raises a good point that although WSIS offers an opportunity to shape policy discourse, many times Summits’ proposals lack formal implementation. In other words, as visionary and inspiring as those WSIS can be, it rarely leads to real life changes.

For real changes to happen, the first thing is to make sure those international agreements we make are “legitimate”, meaning they represent the consensus of all the stakeholders in our society. Of course, it is very tricky to reach that level of consensus, because the social-economical differences for each nation-state are still pretty wide. That’s why it is especially important to include diverse voices into the conversation and the decision making process.

In his paper A Global Alliance for ICT: Bringing Policy Making to the Public and the Public to Policy Making, Derrick L. Cogburn recognizes the key to achieve legitimacy for international agreements is to “ensure that they are arrived at through procedures that are considered to be open, transparent and permitting full participation.”

Cogburn also discussed the technology to mobilize information and facilitate civil society participation evolved from traditional method, which relies on paper and face-to-face communication, to modern method, which includes putting information online (i.e. website), to a more modern method, which incorporate collaborative techniques.

With these technology options available, how effective civil society groups are communicating with each other? To answer this question, Cogburn did an interesting study examining ways and evidence of “Computer-Mediated Communication” within WSIS.

The findings are presented in his paper 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. One of the findings is, although collaborative techniques are becoming increasingly available, e-mail is still the most used CMC among civil society groups, while complex CMC tools such as web conferencing are rarely used. The study also finds out that although WSIS civil society has a high level of overall collaboration readiness, power dynamics still plays a big part within WSIS. This lack of diverse voices in WSIS community is part of the reason why it’s so difficult to implement more innovative and advanced technologies.

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