Workshop D1: New Info-Politics of Rights

Human Rights have been at the heart of many agendas for social change and transformation. Today we’re seeing the rights frame expanding into the field of cultural rights on one hand, and Info-rights on the other. Because of issues regarding access, accountability and control, ICT is now treated as a political entity by civil society. It is even “hybridized” into the rights frame, as Noortje Marres puts it. The issues about the spread, use and adaptation of information/media technologies are increasingly defined in terms of human, civil, communication and information rights.

But does it really work? What does it mean to have ICT in rights instead of the present tactical use of rights in ICT? When does the coupling of ICT with rights work and when does it fail?

These questions were not all fully discussed nor answered in this workshop, but they served to illustrate the current terrain of Info-Rights.

“Why the rights talk?” asked Noortje Marres. She presented the rights discourse as a special case of hybridization. This can be an effect of operating within networks where issues and actors are continually formed and reformed; partnerships built and redefined. Again, she asks: “Why does ITC matter?” Unlike in the case of the environment whose advocates made it crystal-clear why the environment matters, Info-rights (or the Right to Communicate) can’t seem to crystallize this yet.

Thomas Keen also pointed out the ambivalence of rights as discourse as a problematic area in communication rights. Rights discourse has been historically divided into two streams: a mechanism and infrastructure of politicization; and a project of legalization, absolutization and universalization that results in de-politicization. Which info-rights, for example, are juridiciable?

However, info-rights advocates perceive the right to communicate not just as a legal-juridical issue. Sally Burch (of the CRIS Campaign) argues the importance to recognize communication rights as a condition to attain humanity. Communication is far greater and complexer than merely being defined along the lines of the right to information and expression and the media it utilizes.

Since the invention of the telegraph, communication has been intermediated by technology. Technology is never neutral, thus communication has been and is subjected to power struggles. The freedom of expression has been and, even now, daily thwarted and violated, in the name of economic development, big business, the fight against terrorism or political stability. Media saturation creates a dependency upon the media for knowledge about the world (esp. during armed conflict), propaganda and censorship have never been so widespread, and media itself has become Media, Inc. The institutionalization of communication resulted, among others, in the exclusion of peoples from democratic political processes and means of participation.

Communication — as a dialogical process that creates the possibility for formation of ideas, sharing of knowledge, development of cultures and building of societies — has been already and is continually being threatened. It is therefore necessary to call for the creation of the Right to Communication.

A rights critque is a luxury that some people cannot afford, posed Richard Roger at the beginning of the session. Whether the path to calling for the “new” right to communicate will politicize and empower or de-politicize and limit, it will be wise to reflect on one of the comments from the audience: to find a language (of solidarity) to share these struggles.