Numerous events and processes throughout 2014 and 2015 will be devoted to a review of the outcomes of the 2005 UN World Summit on the Information Society, which sought to build a ‘people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented information society’. Over the same period, a number of events and processes are also specifically devoted to the future of the global Internet governance ecosystem – including the NETmundial, a global multistakeholder meeting on this issue to take place in Brazil, in April 2014.
The Internet’s potential to democratise both communication and governance is more than evident around the world today. In India, too, people’s movements and organisations for progressive social change are increasingly discovering and exploring the many ways in which the Internet can support their struggles for social justice and progressive social change.
But the links between the Internet and democracy are by no means as evident, as several recent events have made clear. The Internet can just as easily be used to promote surveillance as to enhance free speech; to increase government and corporate control as to facilitate people’s empowerment or to strengthen a divisive politics as to support progressive forces.
Moreover, the double-sided impact of the Internet on democracy is not only felt online. It is true that activists have, for example, used the Internet to force greater transparency on our government. But as ambitious projects such as the UID make clear, the Internet and related technologies have spawned a new imagination of the practice of governance among those governing as much as those being governed, with important and at times deeply troubling ramifications, including for those crores of Indians who are still lacking Internet access.
And the governance of the Internet itself has become a contentious issue as well. Some of the institutions responsible for Internet governance, such as many of the organisations that are responsible for the technical coordination of the Internet, arose and continue to function with only limited government involvement, giving rise to what is referred to as the multistakeholder model in Internet governance. But some, including the Indian government, feel that far more government involvement in Internet public policy making is now required and are propagating a government-led model instead, among other things because the current model – in practice, if not in theory — disproportionately favours Western governments as well as big business, overwhelmingly based in the US.
This gives rise to fundamental questions. Can multistakeholderism, which for the first time also guarantees civil society a seat around the table in decision-making, not herald a new era in democratic decision-making and people’s involvement in it? How can multistakeholderism be salvaged? What would need to change to make this possible?
And there are broader questions as well. How does the Internet, with all its possibilities affect democracy as a structure and a practice? Which conditions need to be in place for the Internet to retain its potential to democratise both communications and governance? And how do we need to reimagine democratic governance arrangements in general if they are to fully live upto their democratic and empowering potential in the digital age?
The outcome of discussions on these and other questions are likely to shape the future of the Internet for years to come and we believe that it is crucial for activists from a wide range of backgrounds to bring to bear their tremendous knowledge and experience and exert their influence on these processes.
This day-long meeting seeks to bring together activists and scholars concerned with giving marginalised people a voice or with demanding transparency and accountability from government and corporations, through technology or otherwise, to start finding answers to these questions in a people-centred, progressive, pro-democracy politics.
The consultation will be held in Seminar Hall 2, India International Centre, New Delhi, from 10.30 am to 4.30 pm on 11 April 2014. This meeting is by invitation only.