Mirror Image: Part II - The Missing Rights Agenda

I started writing
this blog at Doha
Airport in transit, and continued after a week in distance from the
hectic madness that is Tunis. It can be difficult to reflect on an
event in the midst of grappling with the many strains of issues and
conversations that are simultaneously happening. Here, I am
attempting to regroup some of the thoughts and experiences that I
collected during that one week, and offer a four part blog on some
post-WSIS reflections.




These conversations, and the
href="http://www.apc.org/english/wsis/blog/index.shtml?x=2503009">“Expression
Under Repression” panel
organised by Hivos starkly
reminded me of the missing rights agenda in the WSIS process. At
most, the discursive thrust of including civil society perspectives
have been on development issues. In the ICT 4 All exhibition centre,
this was particularly evident. It really felt like a global branding
exercise on who are the current Big Players in the field of ICTs.
Kind of like Who’s Who for potential investors who might be
swarming in the space.




The language mainstreamed by WSIS and
the ICT4D movements, such as “inclusivity”, “participatory”,
“bridging divides” etc etc etc have been effectively appropriated
by transnational corporations within their taglines. For example,
Microsoft has a huge stand that claims to “accelarate digital
inclusivity”, and the Mac booth declared – in its deafening
understated style – to have software development for the “handicap”
amongst its programme.




Since WSIS recognised the private
sector as an important and relevant stakeholder, it would not
surprise me if these corporations have developed specific departments
that exclusively works on incorporating WSIS and IS language into
their advertising, branding and marketing strategies. Evidently some
do it better than others. In this case, href="http://www.genderit.org/en/index.shtml?apc=f--e--1&x=91874">Alcatel
needs to fire their marketing team who came up with such sexist and
crass techniques, or maybe their CEO who approved of the campaign =/




Even as I listen to the proceedings and
panel sessions over gigantic TV screens and large speakers (courtesy
of GL Events), there is a silence around the issue of rights. So much
so that I started to dance along with the development theme song. I
happened across a Malaysian delegate speaking about the urgency of
bridging the urban-rural digital divide, and suggested that instead
of the usual 3Gs – ie girls, games and gambling – to try and get
people interested in ICTs, we should push for the 3Es: which are
education, entertainment and games (I regretfully inform you that the
Malaysian delegate was a little more adept in soundbytes than
accuracy). When I made it a point to visit the only Malaysian booth I
could see at the Exhibition Hall, it was, lo and behold, a community
project to bridge the rural-urban digital divide.




Don’t get me wrong, access and the
digital divide are very real and urgent issues. But I can’t help
but wonder if this is a little bit of an apologetic stance, and one
that neatly facilitates the increasing clout of the private sector in
the field of “Information Society”. With the language of
development, corporations have additional markets to push for their
technologies and solutions. If particular societies and countries are
identified and located as ‘under-developed’ groups, groups that
needs some ‘digital bridging’, then it logically follows that
infrastructure and services are channelled to that direction. The
focus is on the final stages of the production chain. It legitimises
companies being set up to profit from developing ‘bridging’
programmes, gives companies like IBM and Microsoft a hearty pat on
the back for incorporating marginalised groups in their language,
secures the handshake between States and the private sector, ensures
that money keeps flowing between borders and boundaries and everyone
is happy.




But without an equally strong message
of Rights, then there is a serious flaw in this strategy. For
example, in the Malaysian booth I visited, after about half an hour
of show-casing their work, they explained that href="http://www.msd.net.my/">MSD
is a private company specifically set up to “bridge the digital
divide”. The work they do is interesting, setting up 42 rural
internet centres in various locations throughout the country, working
together with the Ministry of Energy, Water and Communications as
well as the recently privatised Pos Malaysia. One of their core
products is a Centralised Monitoring System, which tracks every
user’s internet activity and stores them in detail, ostensibly for
better assessing the needs of the rural communities.




I can only imagine this as a gross
invasion of privacy. The freedoms that potentially could come with
having access to the internet is severely curtailed when every site,
chatroom or other online community I visit is recorded with my name
next to it. What about blogs? How effective would that tool be as a
place for alternative journalism or reflection of thoughts? Would
they also track webmails and could somehow have access to all the
communications I make online, especially if I am marked as a
dissident subject? What is the point of an Information Society when
the freedoms of assembly and expression, right to information and
communication are all variables that can be sacrificed in the
equation?




When I asked them if they worked with
any civil society groups in their programmes, they responded with a
“no”, and asserted submission to the authority of the government.
Their engagement with the discussions held at the WSIS process was
minimal, and I got slightly confused as to who is parroting who: were
they matching the State’s discourse or vice versa? I mean, a Cyber
Law is apparently currently being drafted in the country and what is
contained within this piece of legislation, or the fact that this was
in process, is barely known. When there is no room for civil society,
then what happens to important issues such as the protection of
rights and freedoms in the pursuit of bridging divides? Should it
then be left to agendas driven by capitalistic principles of
profit-making, and development only through these monetary and fiscal
paradigms? I left the booth slightly shaken, with fear, anger and
frustration.




This is only one example that I
encountered in a milieu where ‘Rights is Just Not The Issue Right
Now’. Even when it was raised, like in the Hivos side event
mentioned earlier, it is framed in the pre-1970s human rights
discourse that neglects to surface a different gender dimension where
concerns could be very different. All three bloggers featured on the
first part of the Hivos session were male bloggers, elevated to the
status of cyber-dissidents at risk because they used weblogs to
counter the discourse of formal politics.




What about bloggers who speak about
issues of violence against women, or on matters related to diverse
sexualities? When pornography is mentioned, it is again quickly
whizzed by as a ‘mere’ tactical tool used to censor content, that
is now being replaced with the discourse of ‘terrorism’. Isn’t
there a space to interject a gender dimension to issues of privacy
and security? For example, when it is not really only about the State
vs the (imagined male) individual subject, but also about private
subjects (perpetrator) vs private subject (survivor of domestic
violence)?




But what chances are there really, to
raise these issues when the space for even ‘mainstreamed’ human
rights language was minimal?