The World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS) has its proponents and its detractors. More interesting than either thread of rote partisanship are the analytical accounts of its conditions and effects put forward by academics of various persuasions. Here we examine two of these positions briefly, and draw what methodological and analytical conclusions we can from their juxtaposition.
Milton Mueller asks what institutions can govern the internet, and how. His argument reviews the internet’s cultural and political effects, such as its push towards democratizing global communication. It takes an historically institutionalist position to the research, and also draw on social network analysis to determine the role of WSIS in international technological governance. He examines metrics such as organizational capacities and the relative centrality of the APC (Asian-Pacific Training Center for Information and Communication Technologies for Development) in an international policy network to answer the questions of governance. Their findings include the importance of the CRIS (Communication Rights in the Information Society) campaign for changing conditions of communication in the developing world.
In particular, he shows that WSIS can inculcate civil society and participation norms largely due to its supporting institutions’ strong connections to powerful local interests across developing nations’ states. This asserts that institutionalization in these contexts puts the idea of multistakeholder governance to the test, and that it succeeds where these efforts to make standard the bases of institutions have robust support from economic and political actors. This helps them realize a cogent critique of the avowed ‘right to communicate’ in information society. Rather than the fundamental status of communication, a right to participate in civil societies, catalyzed or obstructed by institutional environments, takes the forefront for these authors. The practical implication of this focus on participation is that participation can take place through a broader variety of techniques, not limited to communications. Other elements beyond technological capacity or economic structures can also come into play in securing rights to participate, such as the interplay of institutions of governance.
M.I. Franklin takes a different tack in her analysis of the interactions between institutions and their social contexts. Looking at the relationships between NGOs and the same information society, what she sub-titles “A Cautionary Tale,” Franklin investigates grassroots advocacy at the UN through a combination of anthropological fieldwork and content analysis of policy and informal documentation. She frames the importance of WSIS to policy-making participation by NGOs as the support of an ongoing partnership. In this way she is able to undertake a broad study, including accounts of interactions between civil society, government, and business interests, of global ICTs, their relevant media agendas, and their political and economic partnerships. Franklin undertakes what she calls Key Word Strategies in her analysis of important documents from her archive, drawing in particular on techniques like word counts and natural language parsing for an initial quantitative gauge of her anthropologically drawn intuitions. She concentrates in particular on what she sees as the hazards of interactions between large and powerful, though ostensibly separated, actors, such as the obfuscation of whose interests are at stake, and of who benefits, from given policy initiatives.
An interesting practical outcome of Franklin’s approach is the attention paid to the impact that even minor acts of discourse can have on the ground. In fact, she distinguishes harshly between online and on-ground expressions, all while noting the increasing centrality of computing for political organization: computers form much of the environment for discursive actions here, and hypertext is cast as a pervasive form of speech, and thereby as actions. She argues that this conflation of computing and writing with speech is integral to global agenda-setting for ICTs, media, and even sociocultural policy. In the process, Franklin sometimes loses the thread of her argument in mistaken details, such as the misrecognition of search engine algorithms as interpretations of queries rather than the approximations of indexed result sets on the interpretations themselves. However, advocacy ranging from the input of multilateral institutions, proponents of social justice, and ICTs themselves certainly all make the huge leaps that she describes in terms of activity online.
A set of important cross-critiques that these authors might make on one another emerges here. On the one hand, where Mueller’s focus on institutional networks leads to an emphasis on the basic rights and benefits secured as a result of governance’s growth and stability, it minimizes questions of the grounds of basic rights and benefits, largely relegating those discussions to the implications of rights to participate as compared to rights to communicate. On the other hand, Franklin’s concentration on the discursive elements of policy-making assumes a great deal about the intentions of those larger organizations, not to mention about their means of technological interaction. Schematically speaking, then, the difference between their positions is Mueller’s mode-first approach versus Franklin’s means-first approach to discerning the role of international policy in technological questions of development. For our purposes here, it should be recalled that just as markets can be conditions of liberation alongside those of oppression, technologies’ supporting institutions and end users alike have an impact on their structural development over time and across cases.
Milton L. Mueller. (2004) Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004
Franklin, M.I. (2007), NGOs and the “Information Society”: Grassroots Advocacy at the UN—A Cautionary Tale. Review of Policy Research, 24: 309–330. doi: 10.1111/j.1541-1338.2007.00285.