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From IT for Change's Annual Report for 2013-14

Director's Report

What we see

As we look back at the decade since the World Summit on the Information Society 2003, issues of social justice and equity in the information society have become increasingly accentuated. We see a near-complete marketisation of the digital public space and a palpable anxiety of the nation-state about not being able to 'rein in' democratic forces. The result has been that the new digital means are being employed for technocratic controls rather than democratic participation. It is, therefore, imperative that the emancipatory and egalitarian potential of the new ICTs are reclaimed.

Network society - our global, social coexistence marked by high connectivity - is here. As the Internet and the seamless open borders of the online digital space become intrinsic to and reshape social intercourse, including commerce, powerful governments and global businesses know that retaining a tight clasp to control the Internet is of paramount importance. Merchandise exports of Intellectual Property intensive industries totalled $775 billion in 2010, accounting for 60.7 percent of total U.S. merchandise exports. All developing countries are net importers of Intellectual Property, while US and UK are the largest net exporters. Control over the Internet is critical to ensuring dominance in the 'intellectual property' space. It is now also being found to be an unprecedented means of pervasive social, political and cultural control, at the most granular level.

There are many venues that testify to the hegemony of the US and its allies and to the power extraordinaire of big business in the digital arena. WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, comparing Google to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and the British spy agency, GCHQ, asserts that “Google's business model is the spy”. He argues how Google has become “a privatized version of the NSA, collecting, storing and indexing people’s data.”

In the changing scenario of the post-Snowden world, two new developments must be noted. First is the emergence of the digital as a common-place notion, that is discussed not merely in newspaper supplements on technology, but as a here and now, 'mine and yours' type of subject. This is evident also in the debates about what comprises digital literacy and how individuals and societies may need to address their interrelationships with the digital, going beyond just a panic around privacy. In the UK, coding has become compulsory for children as young as five in schools. Second is a push-back from some developing countries including India, that see Internet governance as an issue not only for domestic social and economic policy, but also democratic and just global governance.

In this era of post-innocence, there are some immediate priorities for civil society organisations.

We seem to see and hear much more about the magic of mobile-based liberation than about the consequences of differential digital capabilities. As someone said, today's malls are made not for the general public – they are made for segmented consumer markets so that the mall 'one kind of people' frequent is not the same as where 'the other kind' go! The digital space gets even more easily and thoroughly differntiated than the physical space. We know way too little about the social consequences of such differentiated membership in the digitally mediated social world, its sophisticated management by the market and its systematic muzzling by the state. In India, the new government in the centre has done an about turn on its stance on the Unique Identification project. While the effective targeting of development benefits is being stated as the justification, the advent of the information state with brazen authoritarian overtones cannot be discounted.

Access without control, we have learnt from the feminist movements, is empty. The deliberate ambiguities of the discourse are kept alive by the powerful through support for new civil society formations in the global South. As influential actors propounding digital empowerment notions divested of political analysis and vision, these new formations pose challenges to progressive action. The ability of social movements in the digital arena in the global South to network, build solidarity, and call the bluff, is severely restrained by their lack of resources. It is also undermined by their complete alienation from global forums where decisions on what matters most for a democratic and equitable global future – from the nature of telecom networks, to governance of Internet protocols, regulation of commercial interests, and norms governing people's rights – are being made today. The next few years, we believe will likely see a further whittling down of individual and collective freedoms, and a further marginalisation of people's participation in key network society arenas. But as has always been with history, hegemony meets resistance, sooner than later. We already see the emergence of national and global movements resisting these political-economic hegemonies, seeking alternatives towards a more just, equitable and democratic information society.

What we have set for ourselves

In this processes of building resistance and action towards a just and equitable information society, we believe that the sites for civic political action span many spaces and scales. Strategies are needed to work simultaneously across these spaces and scales.

Reforming Internet Governance

Firstly, the struggle towards democratisation of Internet governance is key. The nature of alliances between progressive forces in the global arena will be decisive in the coming years, as we transition into a Internet-mediated society.

IT for Change has committed itself to this path, since our forays into the WSIS debates. In the past year, we not only continued to shape policy processes globally, we also realised our vision of building a new global progressive coalition that comprises organisations and individuals that share a vision of the Internet that promotes global justice and social equity as pillars of future society. This step was a major achievement, a sign that the organisation has strong and trusted allies in our collective struggle for social justice. The Just Net Coalition has risen rapidly to become a credible actor in global policy spaces.

We have actively engaged with other movements and groups, introducing the Internet democratisation agenda into allied arenas of global justice – the Sustainable Development Goals and big data debates. The work has just entered Phase 2 of our global policy intervention, and we anticipate that the during coming year, our work through the Just Net Coalition, and our participation in the 'post-2015 UN process' will make progress. We will also engage actively in the WSIS plus 10 review process.

Informing policy

Digital rights activists must be vigilant about, and agile in their responsiveness to, a range of national policy processes, including but not restricted to, ICT policies. Today policies and laws on social inclusion, education, gender equality, livelihoods, right to information, and many more, are being reshaped by information society changes.

This year, we contributed to the Government of India's working group on Principles for Internet Governance – making a detailed input. With support from the 'Web We Want' initiative, we held a meeting of Indian civil society organisations triggering a forum for discussing Internet governance issues. We also provided inputs to the e-Governance Standards Division, National Informatics Centre on a Framework on Open Source Software Adoption.

We have been able to demonstrate unequivocal impact on different policy sectors, influencing debates and building alliances – especially in education, gender and governance. We were invited to be part of national and state level committees on Education Policy, Curriculum and Teacher Education. We were invited by the High level Committee on the Status of Women, Ministry of Women and Child Development to make an input on ICTs. We convened a national meet on 'Technology in Governance' to deliberate upon the gains and losses for citizen rights, as governance architectures are rebuilt with digital technologies.

These strategic areas of work reflect our credibility with government and progressive civil society – the trust we value, and on the basis of which, we will strategise further, to influence India's sectoral policies and nascent digital policy processes.

Piloting practice

Thirdly, action in the sense of alternative praxis is critical to inform progressive discourse in global and national debates on ICTs. What is seriously wrong with our digital architecture is now more or less understood. But seeking visibility and legitimacy of alternative methods and models of social and institutional life in the information society is an indispensable part of activism today. Over the past decade, we have worked closely in partnership with local communities, exploring community informatics models that bring to marginalised people a small, but vital, modicum of negotiating power as citizens. Our Women-run, ICT-enabled community information centres have become well connected to local development institutions. We have been able to step into local governance institutions, a task that needs considerable tact, introducing innovations for inclusive and accountable governance.

The public education system has been another significant grassroots domain for our work. We have sought to build the base of the institutional system, through embedding teachers' communities of learning within the Karnataka state education system and intensive school level projects. Our work, meaningfully integrating ICTs in education aims to empower teachers who stand at the system's margins, to reclaim their agency.

We believe that these engagements with communities help us to enhance our understanding of the complexity of how rights and justice play out in relation to digital technologies. We will continue our work through our field centre Prakriye, exploring new ideas and building new models. Community based work with the marginalised groups poses extraordinary challenges today, as the wider environment is rife with hyper-politicisation and erosion of ethical values in social transformation. Reinventing ourselves and staying true to ethical intervention will be a delicate balance we need to maintain. We will also explore in our work with the public education system, new 'technological-pedagogical-content knowledge' models that can support teacher professional development for making education an emancipatory social project of, and for democracy. The potential of this work is immense, with far reaching implications for shaping national policy and practice.

Developing understanding through research

Fourthly, research endeavour that uses robust methodologies and critical analytical frameworks are vital to inform civil society perspective building. The importance of such research cannot be overemphasised in an arena where 'knowledge' is often injected through motivated, commercial interests.

Our work on the 'Women-gov' multi-site research, has been an empowering process, allowing us to build evidence and insights on the significance of affordable access, contextualised digital literacy, public broadband availability, media regulation and local knowledge, to women's empowerment in the digital age. Our research expertise is also widely acknowledged today - we have been invited by other organisations and project to contribute our perspectives; we have advised the FLOW project of APC, and have been invited by the World Wide Web Foundation to support their 10 country research and advocacy process on ICTs and women's empowerment. We also conducting a participatory action research on Open Educational Resources, a project that will inform localisation strategies in the creation of knowledge repositories. Research on such collaborative creation of contextual resources can provide alternative models to the cultural hegemony sustained through the export of knowledge resources from western academic institutions to rest of the world.

Our commitment to pushing the conceptual boundaries through research efforts will continue in the coming year. We will also devote our energies to work on linking our national level advocacy with our research, focusing more on India level research projects.

Constructing knowledge

Lastly, making the nuances of the network society explicit and intelligible to promote the rights of the most marginalised is an urgent task. Skepticism about the bad and ugly parts of the digital arena may have subsided. But the woman who values her mobile phone needs to know not only what she risks as a user, but also where she belongs in the networked world she is entering.

Since our early days, the need to shape discourse and participate in academic debates, and take knowledge to activists, has been a core aspect of IT for Change's efforts. We have been able to formalise this area of our work, working with Universities and planning for short courses that can open up the domain to activists, scholars, academics, and NGO leaders. We also plan to work with post graduate students and have been invited by the Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication to do run an intensive course as part of their semester.

In our design of the curriculum for the ICT mediation in teaching in the Karnataka pre-service teacher education programme, we have brought in our understanding of the socio-political implications of digital technologies; similar ideas have also formed part of our input to national teacher-education curriculum. Our skills and expertise to offer such courses that break down the complexity, while retaining the essential truths, need to be honed, and we look forward to the next year for working with social movements in democratising knowledge on the network society.

This year, our work has been rich and rewarding. We believe that it has contributed not only to the projects of resistance that challenge the ruthlessly exclusionary power of networks, but also to systemic change efforts that make an inclusive and equitable information society, a real possibility. As change-makers in the rapidly mutating digital arena, we recommit ourselves to critical reflection and constructive practice, as we step into the coming year.

Directors, IT for Change

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