A little bit about information and society

It’s all about adding an ‘s’: crafting policies of information Technologies

Participating as a formal delegate in the twelve annual meeting of the Commission for Science and technology for development in the United Nations provided me with the opportunity to reflect upon the process of crafting policies in the area of information technology in the international level.

I couldn’t help noticing the main obstacles that accompany the process of setting a policy. Here are some of them:

1. Multiple stakeholders with different interests (yes, we can call it politics!). In this particular committee there are 43 member states that are formal members with voting rights. Obviously each state has different interest. It was interesting for me to see the role that non-state members, organizations (companies, Non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations etc…) play in this process. Not formally of course. Formally, they had the right to bring their voice to the table and also participated actively in panels and keynote talks. Actually the powerful actor in the process that was able to change decisions behind the scenes was not a formal delegate. Additionally the difference between delegates who were politicians (elected positions) vs. experts/scientists (nominated positions) was clear.

2. Non-continuation of same stakeholders as time progresses – ‘it does not comply with previous agreements from the past’ was one of the strongest arguments made by delegates who followed the process from the beginning. Only one or two were such delegates. Actually most of the participants participated in few events but definitely not in all of them, and therefore had little to say when such an argument was raised. These few ‘seniors’ delegates not always choose to remind participants about past agreements which causes many concepts to be re-opened for negotiations although there were settled in the past.

3. The power of administrators in drafting resolutions is mainly by setting the boundaries and frames of the discourse. It leaves almost no room to the delegates (the countries) to add meaningful issues to the agenda. Therefore, usually participants concentrate on arguing about words here and there, sometimes even about a letter (see the story of the ‘s’ below). I am not inventing the wheel here. Max Weber talked about the power of bureaucracy and administrators 150 years ago. Administrators stay longer than participants, and consequently are able to impact processes more efficiently.

4. Multiple parallel processes – Not only the number of stakeholders is a challenge, but also the number of forums. The issue of the information society is addressed in so many different forums. For example the UN task force, WSIS (world summit of the information society) I and II, G-8 DOT Force and innumerable meetings. What is achieved in one place does not necessarily hold in the other and vice versa. Confusion is the name of the game in conditions like that where the actors, forums and platforms for discussion are switched all the time.

5. ‘fake’ stakeholders – some participants are ‘shadow actors’. By this I refer to actors that do not appear during the discussions and show up in the end for the debates and voting on the drafts. For example, one delegate (I will keep the name of the state with me not to cause a diplomatic incident) appeared only in the last two days and was mainly situated there not to discuss and come to an agreement, but to make sure that he can say NO to certain issues and to try to take certain issues out of the agenda of future meetings.

6. Non-accurate or up-to-date data – One thing that is not missing in such a process is data. And lots of data. Everyone has data and one can here often statements like ‘we found that mobile technology is the only panacea to digital divide’, ‘telecenters are vanishing’, ‘Least developed countries comprise less than 1% of users in the world’. By the way, I don’t agree with the first and second statements, but this is not the essence of the issue. When not everyone are experts (see item 1 above) influencing through numbers is an easy task.

7.       Focus of issue – a big challenge. Information society is broad topic and one probably wonders who determines the focus – would it be on broadband? Mobile technology? Collaboration? or maybe other things. Some are determined by external events which request attention, and by former processes. But in many cases see no. 3 for the answer. It is really about the administrators, e.g., the secretariat of the commission who decides the frame of the issues. Peter Bachrach wrote in the 70s about the power of agenda setting in policy-making.

8. Problematic interpretation of data – It sounds almost like a tautology – by saying the word interpretation, one can assume that some problematic flavor comes with it since it is rare to have all people agree to a particular interpretation. Here are two for example: ‘Access is not an important issue when talking about poverty’ or ‘the regulator should intervene more’. Discussing only interpretations without understanding the data behind the interpretations does not help reaching a resolution.

9. From mandate to action – The word MDG (Millennium Declaration Goals) was mentioned in the discussions 100 times. I couldn’t help wondering – how many people know what is MDG? What real impact does it have on the daily life of you, me and the societies surrounding us? And what does it mean that only 6 more years remain to achieve these goals? (I even imagined a curse falling on universe once we reach the d-day without achieving the MDG goals). How many out of all these crafted policies lead to tangible results? I wouldn’t like to sound pessimistic.

10. Changes take time – Time reaches policy makers more slowly. While the discussions are important, some of them were already resolved or discussed in depth in academia and industry. The cross-fertilization among sectors is scarce unfortunately.

11.   Reaching Consensus vs. Majority/Minority Vote- Finally, some resolutions are achieved by consensus, which sounds great unless you have for example a veto person, someone whose role is to say NO in any case and exploit the fact that this is a consensus process (see item 5). Also when the gaps among the stakeholders are large choosing the consensus way is not ideal.

I would like to exemplify some of above obstacles in policy making via a story about a request of mine to add an ‘s’ to the resolution. Yes, it is only about adding one letter, an ‘s’. I requested to change all the concepts in the resolution from digital divide (without an ‘s’) to digital divides (with an ‘s’). In academia there is a big resentment and debate for years of whether to use the concept digital divide that implies dichotomous meaning of have and have-not access vs. digital divides which reflects more a continuum of inequalities and not only access. Here is an article as a background about this. Obviously many member-states objected the idea with four main arguments. One said ‘only in WSIS 2003 we recognized a gender divide as part of the digital divide, so how can we talk about so many meanings of divides’ which makes me wonder if one makes a mistake should he/she continue to make the same mistake only because the mistake occurred in the past and this is what one did since then? Bordieua called it habitus. Another person said ‘the concept of digital divides (with an ‘s’) reflects only an international gap. This was a bad interpretation of the data that they had in front of them. A third person just said No, because the request was made by a state that had a political dispute with the state that he/she represented. A fourth person objected the idea because in previous meetings the concept was agreed upon and all the stakeholders should stick to what was agreed upon in the past. And finally the chairman tried to compromise saying no to adding the ‘s’ in this resolution, but will consider it positively in future resolution’ (remember item 10 and 11 above – changes take time and consensus may create challenges). The story of the ‘s’ is a story of obstacles that stand in the way of making a change in policy.

The UN

The UN

I will end this post by saying that maybe it is time to move from an ‘information society’ to a ‘wisdom age’ where information would be used wisely according to individuals and communities needs and not only according to the needs of countries’ politicians and administrators.

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There Are 19 Brilliant Comments

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  1. “Non-accurate or up-to-date data”, “not everyone are experts”, “Problematic interpretation of data”, “interpretations without understanding the data behind the interpretations”…

    Why does this sound sooo familiar to me? 🙁 :@

    Thanks for sharing, even if so discouraging reflections 🙂

  2. karineb says:

    I know I sounded pessimistic… But for the long run sometimes these venues are a catalyst for a change – so here – an optimistic side of the story 🙂

  3. Fred Riggins says:

    Very interesting set of observations. Politics is a reality of life that impacts so many areas of life. Also, reaching consensus is difficult when there are more and more stakeholders involved. While we may be a voice in the wilderness at times, you show the importance of the researcher whose role is to bring clarity through theoretical frameworks, rigorous analysis, solid data collection, and empirical conclusions.

  4. karine, i like your conclusion (about the wisdom age)! that is the vision that might inform us…

  5. karineb says:

    Fred – I was really surprised to see how many participants in the meetings were eager to understand and learn about what academia has to say about the issue. So yes – we, as researchers have a voice thee. Unfortunately, I also saw many stakeholders (in many cases vocal ones) that put obstacles in this process of learning.

    Wolfgang – thanks

  6. Ricardo Gomez says:

    Hello Karine
    Thanks for sharing this thoughtful piece on the frustration of policy making process at an international level. I could add my own war stories of dealing with this kind of things, with similar conclusions.

    One additional insight I would add is that policymaking does not happen in a linear or rational process, but there are “windows of opportunity” that open and close. Being in the right place at the right time… watching out for windows of opportunity. Influencing processes indirectly. This “randomness” adds an interesting flavor to the otherwise frustrating process of policymaking from the perspective of researchers and activists.

  7. Aaron Bowen says:

    My big takeaways:

    1. Stakeholders on the Internet:

    There is (still) a wide range of different stakeholders with different, frequently competing interests in how cyberspace and all its related functions and features are governed. (And yes, this has been the case ever since the Internet was released to the commercial public in 1990, but the stakeholders advocating their interests have grown both in number and in dedication as the Internet has increased in reach around the world and in richness of content available).

    2. Authority and governance on the Internet:

    There is (still) a vacuum of authority regarding who is empowered to govern the methods and systems by which the Internet reaches people. Many view that lack of authority as a positive aspect of the ‘net for a variety of reasons — the belief that self-organization is the most efficient way to govern the Internet, a desire to have the ‘net remain a “wild frontier,” a desire to further the interests of one group of stakeholders (potentially at the expense of another group’s interests), and/or a desire to not have any form of authority reside in any one country. This authority vacuum in the area of governance further dictates that even if a standard of Internet governance does actually get produced, there is no one group that can enforce this standard.

    ICANN is perhaps the closest group to a governance authority body, but their reach is limited — most Internet users have no idea ICANN even exists, and ICANN can only do so much in terms of defining and enforcing Internet policies and standards. And yes, ICANN does have loose ties to the U.S. Treasury Department (though in reality the Treasury Department has bigger things to pay attention to than Internet governance, especially with the current U.S. economy). This does lead to the charge that America is managing the Internet, though as I say, the reality is that the U.S. Government has more immediate challenges than Internet governance. With this charge in mind, ICANN has adopted an international steering committee. While there is potential for disagreement between the steering committee and the Treasury department over how the Internet is managed, I have yet to see a major policy showdown between the two.

    As an aside, the Treasury Department has in the past discussed severing all ties with ICANN sometime in the early 2010s, though I don’t know of any specific plans to sever the connection yet. If and when that happens, does ICANN govern itself? Would it require a watchdog authority? Does its steering committee serve that role? If the committee is a part of ICANN itself, can it act as an effective independent review body for ICANN’s activities if there is need of such a body? The ITU has been proposed as an option for this review body role, though connecting them to ICANN gets into the questions of whether a UN body is efficient enough to keep pace with Internet governance issues. The ITU has also said (I believe under pressure from the U.S. Government) that it has no interest in connecting itself to ICANN.

    3. Definitions of concepts within the “information society”:

    Drawing from #7 above, there is definitely a lack of definition about what we are discussing when we talk about an “information society” or about a concept with the information society. This lack of definition I think tends to lead to scope creep — the expanse of what people consider when they consider an information society-related issue continues to get bigger and (frequently) lose clarity.

    With that in mind, I do find it important to debate the parameters of whichever elements of the information society are considered under what circumstances, and how these elements connect to each other. For that reason, I do think the S has a place in the digital divide discussion. We certainly can (and should) talk about the access divide, but there are other divides as well, such as the gender divide you mention.

    To my mind, the obvious way to deal with defining parameters and connecting discreet concepts is to me semantically precise in naming concepts. Rather than speaking of the digital divide as if it is one blanket issue, we could speak of a “digital access divide” or a “digital gender divide.” I admit this could lead to some long, overly complex terms, and that encouraging widespread adoption of terms like this would pose challenges, but terms like these do offer a more semantically precise means of describing what we discuss, and at the same time limit separate issues out of the discussion.

    Of course connecting my second and third thoughts could entail a governance committee for every last aspect of Internet governance — an access divide committee, etc. This might provide a flexible range of forums in which to discuss issues, but I could easily see it turning into a large bureaucracy as well — a situation we might want to avoid 🙂

  8. karineb says:

    Hi Aaron,
    First – thank you for the great summary and insights you have wrote above. I would like to react to the issue of ICANN – ICANN cannot be “the” body that has authority on the Internet. Simply because its mandate is only in the infrastructure. The main challenges today are not necessarily with infrastructure but with content and behavior. This is much problematic to regulate due to the non-boundary nature of the Internet with the nation-state authority at the same time. So who should regulate the Internet? And to what extent?
    Re. your suggestion to define parameters – this is a great idea. One of the challenges I encountered is that a major part of the participants is not even aware to the rich spectrum of challenges that the information society offers us. As a result, the focus is on very few issues as representatives of these challenges. These issues sometimes are just marginal compared to other challenges, ignored in the committee.

  9. Michel J. Menou says:

    Hi Karine

    Thanks for sharing these informative perceptions.

    As I try to get plural for information society, I share your concerns.
    May be you can try that next time, if you still feel like spoiling your time in these futile exercises.

    I remember a good friend showing at the beginning of an UNESCO international conference the list of earlier recommendations and asking what happen with them. Of course nothing. Therefore he said we may resume the meeting once earlier agreements have been implemented.

    As Ricardo said one may watch for a window of opportunity to open up.
    But for most of the time they are closed and so dirty no one sees through.

    As to wisdom, remember the fate of Socrates …

    Change can only come from the local level and then spread. Or alternatively by virtue of a catastrophe, if I may say.

    What we witness with the current financial crisis seems to show that windows are securely closed.



  10. Hello Karine
    Thanks for sharing this thoughtful piece on the frustration of policy making process at an international level. I could add my own war stories of dealing with this kind of things, with similar conclusions.

  11. Hello Karine

    karine, i like your conclusion (about the wisdom age)! that is the vision that might inform us…

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