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A Global Framework for the Information Society
An interview with Philippe Quéau

Philippe Quéau is Director of UNESCO's Information and Informatics Division and delivered the keynote speech at World-information.org's World-InfoCon at Brussels in July 2000. World-Information.Org´s chief researcher Wolfgang Sützl spoke to him about democratic governance in the information society, the seduction of the market, and the protection of the electronic heritage of the future.

Q: In your presentation you pointed out an urgent need for minimizing the digital divide and keeping the digital landscape open for public information and civil society purposes. What is the role that UNESCO and other intergovernmental organizations can play in the democratic shaping of the digital landscape?

A: I think the role of UNESCO is threefold. First of all a forum with elements from the civil society, the governments of the member states of UNESCO and various NGOs should be established; in order to put up as completely as possible the elements necessary for a global framework of reflection on main issues raised by the information society.

The second role would be to take advantage of those elements of reflection to create a draft recommendation that could be submitted to the main governmental bodies such as the global conference of UNESCO. Or it could be taken even further by widening the debates and getting the recommendations adapted by high bodies such as the UN in New York. Those recommendations could then be transformed into effective recommendations for the member states.

Thirdly it should be tried to make the UN's role more visible by creating the conditions for a metanational legitimacy, which is still lacking. Although today we have international and intergovernmental bodies there still exist limitations imposed by the principle of the sovereignty of states. Yet we are witnessing a series of metanational phenomena such as the globalization of the financial and economic system, the worldwide impact of technology or global pollution. In order to handle important political issues we need to transform the existing international into a global, more metanational system.

Q: Sometimes it is argued that democratic procedures, such as the one you are describing, lag behind the actual technological developments. How do you assess the perspectives and opportunities that governmental and intergovernmental procedures have visà-vis a globalizing, very dynamic and very fast market?

A: Well, I think it is a mistake to think that there is no role for policy makers on legal issues anymore, because of the so-called stance of the market, or the liberalization, or the deregulation process. There are a variety of examples, which show a need for a new reregulation. And those are very evidently linked to the antitrust law in the United States or the Treaty of Rome in Europe.

We for instance had the application of the modern German act or antitrust law by the United States on the Microsoft case, or even more recently on the announced merger of the number two and three of telecommunications. And this merger was refused by antitrust law authorities, the department of justice in the United States and also the European commissioner for competition Mario Monti. So there is some room for global regulation, but there is no such thing as a global antitrust law. So maybe we should fight for more such global principles. Especially to protect the interests of those countries, which have no access to powerful regulations like the Sherman Act.

But concerning problems like the protection of privacy, the protection of universal access, the protection of the freedom of expression or the protection of human dignity it is still the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is important. Such issues cannot be left to the new market to decide, because it has no interest in enforcing those kinds of principles. It is not its responsibility, but whose responsibility is it? Of course the states at one level, but we need something more general, exactly like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We have to enforce those rights in the new contexts of cyberspace and the Internet age. For example, the protection of human dignity today with the advance of surveillance technology and data mining has a completely different meaning than it had in the mid 20th century. There are new challenges, which are difficult to cope with if we are using a framework that was designed 50 years ago.

Yet those principles have to be enforced. But they will not be enforced without the mobilization of the global civil society that will be the engine in pushing for reforms and political action. If the global civil society, including NGOs, does not move on this issues, it is easy to predict that it will be the market forces, which will determine the future. And that will in fact run contrary to the higher interests of the human kind.

Q: Many of the media we use today in art and culture may not be readable in the years to come. What should be done on a governmental and intergovernmental level in order to ensure that there are common standards and procedures, so that we will still be able to talk of a cultural heritage in the future?

A: There are two aspects in your question. The first is a more regulative one, which involves the member states and could take the form of the memory of the world program that UNESCO is currently promoting. Here we of course need to adopt practices and standards, which allow an easier exchange of data and guarantee its readability in the future. Yet this is a very difficult process as the situation in the member states is very different and the costs involved in any global standardization are enormous. So it is a problem of the allocation of priority.

The second aspect concerns the way we think about what is worth to be protected today, referring to the status of the model as opposed to the image. For example in computer graphics you have two elements: the image, which is the visible part, and the computer program or the mathematical model that is more an abstract equivalent of the image. Even though a 20 years old program might not work today, the concept, the mathematical language, the algorithm could be protected and the image be run on very different machines. Just by developing a new program that uses the same mathematical concept. Therefore, instead of focusing on the mere terminal aspect of the work being done, i.e. images or sound, we could choose to invest on the mega means, on the protection of the concept, the algorithm, the program, which will be much easier and much less costly to preserve.

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