> Imagining Other Spaces: Envisioning development justice in the Information Age

Imagining Other Spaces: Envisioning development justice in the Information Age

Nandini Chami

IT for Change, November 2013
(This paper builds upon IT for Change’s presentation for the Panel on ‘Framing Re-distributive Justice’ at the 2013 Asia Pacific Regional Consultation with Special Procedures Mandate Holders organised by Asia Pacific Forum on Women,Law and Development, between October 27-29 2013 in Dhaka, Bangladesh)

Introduction: First Principles for reflecting upon the question of ICT possibilities for development justice

“The present epoch will above all be the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity, we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein”

Michael Foucault, in “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias”, http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/foucault1.pdf, Retrieved 24 October 2013

These words of Michael Foucault seem an useful point of departure for our deliberations on the potential of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) for furthering the development justice agenda. As many scholars have long pointed out, it is possible to fully understand the opportunities (and challenges) of ICTs as a site for social change – only when we recognise that ICTs are co-constitutive elements of the social world. They re-define power structures , and need to be seen more critically than as value-neutral goods/resources to be deployed for chosen ends.

This paradigmatic shift in our approach to analysing the transformative potential of ICTs enables a recognition of the disruptions that ICTs bring about, in the social relationship architectures of our everyday world. The ‘space of flows’ is seen to characterise the information society. Here, we are witness to an increasingly networked socio-economic world order, where no woman can be an island! In compressed time, we become a connected global community, hitherto unimagined. In fact, this phase of globalisation rides on the logic of networks – where the ‘space of places’ has been subordinated to the ‘space of flows’ and where economic and political power now rests upon the capacity to re-configure and transform the networks that have become a crucial feature of our ‘social morphology’ .

On the one hand, this emergent techno-social paradigm portends the threat of re-inforcing existing structures of oppression and creating new patterns of social exclusion that amplify the divide between the Global North and the Global South. On the other hand, this emergent paradigm has opened up new vistas for the public-political participation of hitherto marginalised groups. For, the new digital spaces have facilitated the emergence of multiple trans-local publics, including those that were traditionally excluded from their national public spheres. Similarly, numerous opportunities have opened up in the emergent paradigm for innovative economic models that build on the possibilities offered by Internet-enabled networks for aggregation and association.

It is this double-edged nature of the emergent techno-social order that prompted the WSIS Declaration of 2003 to underscore the caveats that must be followed if the vision of shaping an inclusive ICTs for Development paradigm for promoting a just world order had to be realised:

“…..Under favourable conditions, these technologies can be a powerful instrument, increasing productivity, generating economic growth, job creation and employability and improving the quality of life for all.”

The significance of the caveat “Under favourable conditions” becomes even more important when read against the macro-context of the emerging techno-social paradigm . The ‘Measuring the Information Society Report’ 2012 of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) notes that worldwide, fixed-broad band and mobile broadband connections are growing. However, as the ITU report points out, the majority of those in developing countries continue to be reliant on low bandwidth-mobile broadband infrastructure. Also, affordability of fixed broadband and low speeds of broadband continue to be a challenge in the developing world. In short, developing countries are tending to replace, rather than complement, fixed broadband access with mobile broadband.

This has led to a situation in developing countries, which:

“ effectively restricts the type and quality of applications and services that users can access over the Internet. It is also important to note that while mobile-broadband technology helps to increase coverage and offer mobility, the mobile networks and services currently in place usually only allow limited data access, at lower speeds, which often makes mobile-broadband subscriptions unsuitable for intensive users, such as businesses and institutions. High-speed, reliable broadband access is particularly important for the delivery of vital public services, such as those related to education, health and government. (Thus) The potential and benefit of mobile-broadband services is therefore constrained when mobile broadband is used to replace, rather than complement, fixed (wired)-broadband access .”

What this means is that in most social contexts, where the majority of the world’s women are located, their ‘network destiny’ is a demoted experience – tied to a market-place logic of an increasingly fragmented space of ‘participation’.

In July 2012, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations adopted Resolution L13, the ‘Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet’,which affirms that the “same rights that people have offline must also be protected online” and calls upon all States to promote and facilitate access to the Internet. Clearly, the stage has been set to discuss the specific questions of: How can we open up empowering possibilities, and economic and social opportunities for women and other marginalised groups in this emergent techno-social order? How can we further the development justice agenda in this context?

Taking stock of ICT possiblities for the socio-economic empowerment of marginalised women

(a) ICTs and social empowerment

The Internet certainly opens up new spaces for women to transcend the embodied basis of sex difference, enabling women to create radical, alternative identities . We have witnessed numerous instances of the creative use of online spaces and forums by feminist groups, to develop alternative symbolisms, and engage in play and parody that subvert the hegemonic norms that re-inforce the operations of patriarchy . Also, the Internet offers enormous possibilities for trans-local alliance building for feminist groups fighting patriarchy in repressive state regimes and in contexts where mainstream cultural norms cannot accommodate the struggle for gender justice 11 .

At the other end of the spectrum, in contexts with limited Internet penetration, there have been numerous civil society driven community radio and video initiatives. These efforts take advantage of the economy and flexibility that digital technologies offer in content production, editing and broadcast and distribution, to legitimize women’s experiential knowledge and to strengthen women’s peer-to-peer learning and dialogic processes. Thus, at the local level, they create an alternative discourse on gender 12 .

At the same time, there has been equally valid skepticism about the empowering potential of the Internet, which, just like any other cultural artifact, has not been free from the larger trend of the sexual subjectification of women , and the commoditisation of sexuality, that has accompanied the rise of a triumphant global capitalist socio-economic order. Of equal concern is the fact that the few large corporations who provide Internet Intermediary services – facilitating storage, delivery and navigation of online content produced by others – often obfuscate the debate around their obligations and responsibilities towards protecting freedoms of expression, association and communication on the Internet. By discursively positioning themselves as ‘platforms’, they offer users a false sense of security about the openness and value-neutrality of such spaces . However, the picture is not black-and-white. There are many grey spaces, spaces of possibilities, even if only partially explored.

(b) ICTs and women’s economic empowerment

There is plenty of evidence from around the world on the possibilities that ICTs open up for enabling women to overcome barriers of access to market information networks , capacity building of women entrepreneurs who find traditional textual resources irrelevant due to education barriers, and the successful efforts of membership based organisations in effectively utilising the networking potential of ICTs, especially mobile phone technologies, for effectively reaping the benefits of networked information processing systems for effective management of their value chain .

At the same time, some very important concerns remain, such as:
– The absence of women in Science,Technology,Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers,

– The tendency of Information Technology (IT) and Information Technology Enabled Services (ITES) sectors to promote a veneer of gender equality where new job opportunities open up for women, but only at the lower level ,

-and the propensity of ICTs to generate greater impact on sectors that are downstream in the value chain rather than the core operations of rural, women-run micro-enterprises that manufacture goods or grow produce .

Building an equitable techno-architecture: Some reflections

There is a long road ahead! Against this backdrop, let us proceed to reflect on the most important question – how do we reshape the emergent techno-social paradigm in a manner that furthers the empowering potential of ICTs?

Primarily, this requires us to develop appropriate policy frameworks both at national and global levels that can enable an equitable techno-architecture to emerge. A democratic and collaborative Internet architecture is key to realising the development justice agenda in the information society context – but in the current scenario marked by the absence of any kind of normative framework, there are significant threats arising from state control and surveillance of online spaces as well as market excesses on digital platforms. Some of the key issues that need to be addressed, if we are to realise the vision of creating an equitable techno-architecture, are detailed below.

1. Recognising the need for global public policy frameworks on the governance of the Internet – the first step forward

One of the longstanding challenges in developing appropriate global policy frameworks for Internet Governance has been the absence of an appropriate institutional space and processes at the global level, to address the public policy issues emerging from the Internet, apart from the Internet Governance (IG) Forum intended as a deliberative space for sharing and recognising key Global IG issues for resolution .

Also, the bulk of the discussions at the Internet Governance Forum has been centred on technical issues, with not much emphasis on economic, social and political analysis or the structural questions of marginalisation/exclusion from the emerging techno- social paradigm . This vacuum is especially troubling as there are a number of issues for public policy that are emerging – such as the new cross-border issues arising out of Internet facilitated trade, and the new problematics around rights and freedoms that online spaces present.

2. Internet trade/commerce and new governance challenges

Globalisation of trade over and through the Internet is a fact that we have to contend with. This has created some significant issues for public policy, such as: (a) enforcing the applicability of local laws in transactions where digital services are traded over the Internet (b) rationalisation of taxes on digital service exports between the countries where the service provider is registered, and the country(ies) where consumption of services take place (c) ensuring that marginalised groups’ access to knowledge resources that is opened up the Internet is not comprised in the furtherance of the economic interests of the Global North through cross-border enforcement of Intellectual Property (IP) Rights through measures such as Digital Rights Management, and the use of private intermediaries for extra-judicial enforcement of IP rights.

3. Recasting the Internet as social commons rather than a market place

In order to fully realise the possibilities that the Internet offers for furthering the development justice agenda, one vital shift that is required is to recast the dominant imaginary of the Internet from that of a market place to that of a social commons. The mainstream discourse on Internet governance that endorses the existing multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance by various organisations from the technical community as adequate, is rooted in this imaginary – which reduces all issues of Internet governance to that of governance of “technical standards”. This neo-liberal vision of the Internet as an
“open and free” space where individuals and organisations are free to enter into partnerships for business innovation fails to acknowledge that “open and free” does not automatically translate into “democratic and collaborative”.

There are some vital public policy issues to be addressed in this regard,and the key ones are highlighted below:

(a) Ensuring that the foundational principle of net neutrality is retained

The promise that the Internet offers for building and promoting alternative informational and knowledge networks, is largely because of the Internet’s ability to be neutral to the content that flows over it, unlike earlier communication platforms. However, in the current context, this foundational principle (otherwise termed as ‘net neutrality’) is under threat.

Advocates of digital rights and freedoms see net neutrality as fundamental for ensuring that the Internet remains a free and open technology, fostering democratic communication. Social campaigns have pointed to how cable and telecommunications companies seek to be Internet gatekeepers, deciding which websites go fast or slow and which won’t load at all. According to SaveTheInternet.com for instance, companies want to “tax content providers to guarantee speedy delivery of their data … to discriminate in favor of their own search engines, Internet phone services, and streaming video – while slowing down or blocking their competitors.” In fact, without net neutrality, a handful of massive companies would control access and distribution of content, deciding what you get to see and how much it costs . Thus, “unless Wikipedia and WHO pay up enough, which they may not be able to as much Pfizer for instance, the sources of information that you will be directed to will be drug companies, or possibly “corporate social responsibility” fronts set up by them which subtly filter information towards serving their company’s interests .

The fact that companies currently have the right to influence users while storing user data like browsing history, text messages and call history on their servers, points to the invasiveness of corporate control into our everyday information, knowledge, communication and relationship architectures . The rise of market power in the network society context also poses a serious threat to concerns about the commons. Online publics where women’s movements build counter-culture and solidarity to challenge entrenched patriarchal values and norms in the dominant institutional and social order are in many ways ‘compromised publics’.

(b) Ensuring that the Mobile Internet is not used as a replacement for the Broadband Internet

The current celebration of mobiles as the panacea for women’s empowerment glosses over the fact that in dominant mobile platforms, unlike the Internet, “the network is entirely proprietary and is not agnostic to different digital content providers. ” Mobile network providers offer certain applications that are pre-loaded for free, locking-in users to certain digital environments. Unless there is a fundamental transformation in the existing mobile telephony architecture to make it open, it would be misleading to envision mobiles as the most appropriate technology for poor women despite the fact that mobile wireless communication transforms private and public life. In fact as Castells et. al. have argued, it is quite possible that mobile communication can even exacerbate gender related inequities. While high speed broadband coverage increases in developed countries, connecting and networking individuals and institutions, developing countries seem to play catch-up with mobile subscriptions that hardly match up qualitatively, in what they can offer in terms of online lives.

(c) If the Internet is to be an enabler of other rights, the issue of public access should not be reduced to that of market expansion

The current importance of ICTs and the Internet as tools for poverty reduction, development and as enablers of other rights have been acknowledged in the Millennium Development Goals, as well as in reports of UN Special Rapporteurs, and declarations and policy documents from groups such as the OECD, G8 and the European Council. In such a scenario, nation states must frame legislations and develop policy frameworks that ensure ‘Internet access for all’, in a manner that does not reduce the idea of public access to universal access provided by the market. In other words, the idea of facilitated public access that is state-provided and a broadband plan that provides a backbone for institutional and home-based connectivity, must be central to national policy and programmatic frameworks.

4. The question of online freedoms

The economic and political surveillance machineries online threaten the future of freedoms. But to ensure that bodily integrity and women’s rights are guaranteed online, it is important to start with freedoms. Protectionist frameworks cannot be the starting point. Developing frameworks that address inter alia not only the freedom of expression, but issues like universal access and network neutrality, to ensure that the ‘public’ nature of the network is neither commodified nor controlled by the state or the cultural police is critical.

This is another area where global governance frameworks are needed – especially in the face of increased online surveillance by authoritarian state regimes . Needless to say, the question of global governance frameworks for protecting user freedoms has assumed a whole new dimension in the post-Snowden world – which has amply demonstrated how the present governance deficit with respect to the Internet and global regimes of technology is a strategic effort by “the powers that be in
international political economy ……. (to increasingly align) global regimes of technology with that of trade, finance and intellectual property to further the status quo” .

5. Re-examining the rapid emergence of the new development buzzword – Open Data for

Development initiatives:

There has been a lot of celebration of the new data revolution that ICTs have made possible, especially in creating open data initiatives – including advocacy for a Global multi-stakeholder partnership on Development Data where governments, private sector players and civil society organisations are involved, in the recent discussions and debates on the post-2015 developmental agenda. We must pause to carefully interrogate the assumption that ‘open data’ initiatives will always have transformative outcomes that benefit the most marginalised sections. This assumption emerges out of a conflation of the idea of ‘open’ with ‘transparency’, ignoring the second meaning of ‘open’ that is implicit in the idea of ‘open data’ – the idea that to be open, “data must be accessible online, published without technical restrictions to re-use, and provided under a license that allows the data to be re-used without limitation, including across different “fields of endeavour” (i.e. commercial and non-commercial alike)” .

When we pay attention to this second, implict idea of ‘openness’ that underlie open data initiatives, we start “recognising the possibilities of the potential risks of opening data in the context of unequal access vis-à-vis the capacity to use that data” – in other words, the risk of the consolidation of existing power structures as in the case of Bangalore’s Open Government Data initiative linked to land ownership information. Also, open data initiatives too are not value-neutral or objective – as a recent study on the UK’s Open Government Data initiative demonstrates.

The question of the kind of partnerships that are emerging for data development between governments and private sector players needs some investigation. Our (IT for Change’s) engagement with the Indian e-government context has alerted us to a worrisome trend where the government is setting up new class of ‘body corporates’ – information utilities 37 that will access data sets generated by the government, process them and sell them back to the government departments – and this move when coupled with the Indian government’s decision to set up a privatised telecentre architecture across the country, that will also be centrally involved in micro- local data collection (in addition to its function as an information and service delivery kiosk), is a sure recipe for privatising the heart of the governance system!

To conclude this note, we turn to another visionary philosopher and scholar of our epoch – Henri Lefebvre:“Change life! ‘Change society!’ These precepts mean nothing without the production of an appropriate space. …”. Can we reshape the emergent techno-social paradigm as that appropriate space that can make another world possible?

This paper draws upon heavily from two earlier works of IT for Change: Gurumurthy,A., Chami,Nandini and Salaronta, E.2011. http://www.itforchange.net/Reflecting_on_gender_through_the_%27information_society %27_prism and Gurumurthy, A. Forthcoming. Gender and ICTs Brief for DFID.
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Scholars have characterized the paradigmatic social shifts we are witnessing by heralding the emergence of an ‘information society’, ‘a knowledge society’ or a ‘network society’ according to their theoretical persuasions. What remain incontestable are the significant changes to the socio-economic and public-political spheres of life because of the re-constitution of social relationship architectures through the techno-social processes facilitated by ICTs.
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http://www. chinapost.com.tw/taiwan/local/taipei/2013/01/05/366392/Taipei-to.htm highlights an illustration of such an issue.
Increasingly important in the wake of tax evasions by Internet companies such as http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-10/google-revenues-sheltered-in-no-tax-bermuda-soar-to-10-billion.html

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2014-02-09T11:26:22+00:00February 9th, 2014|Feminist Development Justice|