11 12 2003
The Problem with WSIS
by Alan Toner (US)
We begin with a tale of two terms: the well aired and well known "Information Society", and its rather furtive and less well known relation, "intellectual property" (IP).
One of the decade's great shibboleths, "Information Society" was a phrase recycled throughout the Nineties by policy hacks, academics and gurus alike. Employed variously to herald the expansion of digital networks, the permeation of labour by information processes, and the shift from tangible to intangible goods, "Information Society" seemed to imply something inexorable, a consequence of the massive mediatisation of the preceding years, outside any one set of strategic interests - something, we were constantly reminded, "we would all have to adapt to."
What this rhetoric largely clouded was the wave of expansionist intellectual property laws which accompanied the "informatization" of society. These legal constraints, at whose epicentre sits the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, annex to the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs (GATTs), have served a very strategic set of interests within the post-industrial scene. They have effectively reversed the traditional role of IP laws from the protection of cultural production and scientific/technological innovation to the limitation of these creative forces. Additionally, they served to fix relations between advanced post-industrial states and the former "third world". They have done this by creating copyright monopolies which drive concentration of ownership, push up costs of entry into markets, and exclude effective activity for many independent actors. These agreements ensure that even where production is transferred to these areas due to lower labour and production costs, the profits continue to flow to New York, London and Zurich.
Copyright laws protect commerce from competition and from its own customers, allowing it to charge a rent on the past which finances domination of markets in the present - and which, in turn, is taken to guarantee the future. This putative guarantee comes at a certain price: software licenses checked at gunpoint in Brazil; a Russian software engineer arrested and jailed in the United States after a conference presentation of his work before thousands; indigenous Indians in Chiapas rioting after a police raid on a market of infringing goods; an 18-year-old Norwegian prosecuted for enabling a Linux based DVD player; American citizens sharing music prosecuted as felons; university researchers charged with criminal trade secrets offences for publishing knowledge derived from their own research works; China summarily executing trademark pirates as disciplinary examples. In AIDS-ravaged sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, pharmaceutical companies have instigated actions through the WTO and in national courts to prevent the cheap manufacture of the anti-retrovirals necessary for people to survive. Where once corpses accumulated to the advance of colonialism or the indifference of commodity capital, now they hang in the profit and loss scales of Big Pharma, actuarially accounted for and calculated against licensing and royalty revenue. With the aid of stringent IP law, companies are able to exercise a biopolitical control that takes to new extremes the tendency to liberate capital by restricting individual and collective freedoms and rights - even the right to life itself.
Why you won't hear anything about this at WSIS
You might be forgiven for imagining that one of the first imperatives of an occasion such as the World Summit on Information Society would be to address the social terrors being carried out in the defence of intellectual property. Unfortunately such topics are firmly off the agenda, not by oversight for stragetic reasons.
Information and communications have been the subject of two previous international initiatives since the Second World War. The first, the UN"s 1948 Conference on the Freedom of Information, also in Geneva, was overshadowed by Cold War tensions.
But ensuing attempts at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) to revise the Paris Convention governing industrial property (patents and trademarks) and to expand the role of compulsory licensing at the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) were more successful. At UNESCO, demands for a "New World Information and Communication Order" (NWICO), premised on a critique of media concentration and cultural domination of third world countries by foreign states and commercial interests, postulated the centrality of informational flows to economic development and argued that systemic inequalities in such flows obstructed countries from developing local media industries that could allow them to represent themselves.
Out of the Declaration on Mass Media at UNESCO's 1978 conference came the establishment of a commission to study communications issues, which two years later published "Many Voices, One World", better known as the MacBride Report, setting out a program promoting diversity of ownership, plurality of opinion and guarantees of cultural identity. Despite the moderation of its claims, the MacBride report incensed media and broadcast associations, especially in the US, culminating in the 1981 "Declaration of Taillores" demanding that UNESCO "abandon attempts to regulate news content and formulate rules for the press."
Ultimately the United States left UNESCO in 1984 (depriving it of 30 percent of its budget) followed shortly thereafter by Britain and Singapore. All of these negotiations had taken place in multilateral fora, a terrain for which the Reagan administration had little taste, preferring the conditions of bilateral negotiation where US economic and military clout could be wielded with less modesty. Companies such as Pfizer and IBM, as well as trade associations like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) decided that the genteel style of WIPO, the numerical supremacy of the developing countries, and the lack of an enforcement mechanism for international copyright and patent treaties, made it unsuitable for their purposes.
The US Administration"s new bilateral trade-based strategy debuted in 1983 in the form of the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act, which offered duty-free access to US markets for certain goods, contingent on compliance with US intellectual property norms - a template later employed in numerous other bilateral deals. The following year, US copyright industries united to establish the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) which was to pursue a trade route towards copyright enforcement.
In 1986, with the Uruguay Round of the GATT negotiations on the horizon, the IIPA was supplemented by a new industry group, the Intellectual Property Committee (IPC), determined to ensure that corporate IP concerns be inserted into the negotiation agenda and fully integrated into any ultimate agreement. It was the IPC’s efforts to orchestrate business lobbying efforts on a global basis which culminated in TRIPS, now administered by the WTO. TRIPS will transfer an estimated 40 billion dollars from the poorest states over the next ten years, according to the World Bank, via patented medicines and seeds, and net rent transfers through royalties and licenses.
A CONFERENCE WITHOUT CONTENT
This evacuation of power from UN organisations poses a dilemma : what can be meaningfully discussed at WSIS? The draft declaration indicates the questionable content of the "information society" concept itself, comprising 71 different points and resuscitating a ruse reminiscent of the heights of the "dot com" folly: addition of prefix "E-" to any given area of human activity to cast it as an "ICT issue" (E-administration, E-Learning and so on). This will not help. Two basic contraditions remain and WSIS will do little to overcome them.
First, rhetoric and reality starkly diverge: development agencies set a target of connecting every family and village by 2005 in a context of constantly dwindling budgets and the emasculation of sources of self-financing such as the Accounting Rate Mechanism. Likewise the sole surviving product of the NWICO debate within UNESCO, the International Program for the Development of Communication (IPDC) has been so denied resources as to cripple it entirely: in 2001, contributions to the IPDC program at UNESCO hit an all-time low of US$1.25 million. Given that major "donors" slashed aid through the Nineties - US development funding is smaller as a proportion of the total economy than at any time since the advent of official statistics - the likelihood of any tangible effects arising from the programme is negligible.
Second, the emerging IP regime directly contradicts the goals of this conference. Access to essential information will get more difficult, despite information technologies potential to put it all at everyone's fingertips. Chances of developing countries to create products and bring them to the market will dimish, not increase, because of the new restrictions based on information through copyright and patent law.
Unless we start to recognize that a fair IP regime is an integral part of a fair Information Society, efforts like WSIS will be little more as window dressing and a huge waste of time.
Alan Toner firstname.lastname@example.org is an activist and researcher working from Rome, Italy. He is part of the Autonomedia collective.