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<nettime> Steve Cisler: Report on II Global Congress of Citizen Networks
geert on Thu, 17 Jan 2002 11:39:07 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Steve Cisler: Report on II Global Congress of Citizen Networks

(fwd. to nettime with the permission of the author. for those who wonder,
steve cisler unsubscribed from nettime and other lists a while ago to have
more time to write. geert).

II Global Congress of Citizen Networks, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
December 2001

Report copyright by Steve Cisler 2001 <cisler {AT} pobox.com>

This article may be served, stored, mailed, archived on non-commercial
web sites, magazines, home pages, and mailing lists.

In the current issue of Foreign Policy, (1) Lawrence Lessig argues that
the Internet phenomenon is like a shooting star whose trajectory is now
in rapid descent, not because of viruses and hackers or the demise of
the dot.coms (what I now call "faith-based organizations"). What he
calls the "innovation commons" is disappearing because of the corporate
push for restrictive intellectual property laws. He quotes Machiavelli
who wrote "Innovation makes enemies of all those who prospered under the
old regime, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who
would prosper under the new." In one private forum the discussion is
about the Internet being "enclosed" by these new initiatives. Those
striving for an information commons where, to use Doug Schuler's phrase,
civic intelligence can flourish, gathered in early December in Buenos
Aires, Argentina.(2) More than 500 people came to the Second Global
Congress of Citizen Networks to meet each other and to hear
presentations on the ways that groups of citizens and non-profits are
making use of the Internet and what is known as information and
communication technology or ICT in development parlance. Many would
include older media such as video and radio too.

What are citizen networks? Internet technology projects that benefit
people as citizens rather than as consumers; projects that help
marginalized groups have more control over their existence and even give
them a stronger sense of identity. Citizen networks are about inclusion
and how the technology can be used for democratic goals and for economic
development. Many of the sessions were about community networking
efforts around the world. Community Networking has been used for at
least ten years, but is still vague in many people's minds outside of
the field, especially since the word "community" has been debased by
stretching the meaning of the word to mean customers of an online
service ("the AOL community") or all the nations that may share some
point of view about trade or the environment ("the International
community"). In Italy and the U.S. the term "civic networks" has been
used. This bring us closer to understanding what we were meeting about:
how groups of citizens and non-profit organizations were using network
technologies(1)  for personal, social, economic, and political change.

Under this banner of citizen networks there were dozens of sessions and
workshops that attracted people from Latin America (mainly Argentina),
U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, France, Spain, Australia, and a sprinkling
of people from other parts of Europe, Africa, Asia, and New Zealand. A
core group of people who attended the first conference in Spain in 2000
planned this one, and are also planning the future ones in Montreal,
Canada (October 2002), and Queensland, Australia (September 2003).

I flew out of Silicon Valley the day of the largest broadband failure in
the continuing Internet and telecomms bubble deflation. The judge in a
ferocious court battle allowed At Home to cease service to more than
800,000 cable modem customers around the United States. I consider this
setback one more slowdown that will affect the deployment of better
services in other urban as well as remote areas in the other countries.
I arrived in Argentina as their own financial crisis reached a critical
stage. Citizens, worried about the stability of the peso which was
officially pegged to the U.S. dollar, withdrew 500 million dollars that
Friday, and the day before the conference started, the Argentine
government raided the pension fund and enacted strict measures to
prevent the withdrawal of more than $1000 per month from personal bank
accounts. Some of the Argentine conference organizers were wrapped up in
the business of the forthcoming congress and did not have time to
preserve the value of their savings. Some restaurants accepted credit
cards; others stopped, and more businesses demanded cash.  Argentina
seemed to be following the same path as Enron in the U.S. Though there
was turmoil in the city, the conference went rather smoothly.

I was impressed by the attention paid last year at the first congress in
Barcelona to the problems of translation. It was even better this year.
Almost every workshop had regular translators who handled speed-of-light
Spanish speakers, English speakers who were struggling with complex
concepts or spoke haltingly, and conversations between many people
speaking from the floor in one of several languages. Still, those with
only one language gravitated to conversing only with people willing or
able to speak that language. Some small number spoke all three of the
main languages, and many Spanish-speakers were fluent in English and
acted as a bridge for the Anglos who spoke little Spanish.

In spite of the problems in the United States telecomm industry and the
financial crisis in Argentina, the program reflected a rather hopeful
and positive outlook on the future of these public access activities,
advocacy, and speed of deployment. As Doug Schuler of Seattle,
Washington said, "You would not be here if you were not optimistic."
>From some of the Argentine presenters there were the expected speeches
against globalization. They felt the currency policy, economic
liberalization, and deregulation have not helped the country that much,
and so globalization must be to blame.   However, in a pre-recorded
interview with Manual Castells in Spain, he said that globalization is
part of our world, and we have to live with it. He sees community
networks as a key element in building social institutions in a
globalized world, and he was very positive about the growth of
community/citizen networking in the 90's. He envisions a global civil
society interacting and acting through networks. It was a good
expression of what we seem to be about, a view that was not artic ulated
all that clearly  in the panels I attended before Castells spoke. Pieces
of that vision were discussed, but not in the way he expressed it.


TELELAC is a project for Latin American and Caribbean telecenters that
is organized by Chasquinet of Quito, Ecuador. The advisory group met all
day to work on issues related to existing and new programs as well as
the participation in the Citizens Network Congress. Scott Robinson and
Michel Menou had an all-day program on Tuesday where people from all
over the region and other parts of the world could share problems,
experiences, and needs relating to telecenters/community technology
centers.  The advisory group was also discussing the way for the
informal organization "somos {AT} telecentros" (we are  {AT}  telecenters) (3)
could become a legal entity, registered in Brazil, with a more general
goal of spreading the organization's reach to include national and
regional telecenter/technology center organizations from all over the
world. There are eight national groups in the LA/C region and about that
many in the rest of the world at the end of 2001.

All Day Workshop

The all day workshop on telecenters was held in a room holding 70 people
at the Intercontinental. Attendance ranged from 30 to 50 during the day.
Most of the people were Spanish-speaking from Argentina, and those who
only spoke English had informal translation.  Karin Delgadillo of
Chasquinet gave a presentation about the development of telecenter
networks between 1999 and 2003, looking back from the imagined future,
and this started off the session.  In Argentina there are strains,
competition, and gaps in understanding between the government community
technology centers and other telecenters. I cannot explain the basis of
this crisis, but it was evident at the meeting. I gave a talk about the
Kellogg Managing Information with Rural America project  (MIRA) where
some of the more than one hundred citizen groups  tried to establish
community technology centers but had mixed results. The project allotted
a great deal of money for groups to meet, to set up citizens groups for
training on community organizing, project management, and finally to
plan modest ICT projects.  This was a foundation project that really did
put people ahead of the technology component and let the local groups
choose what would suit them best of all.  Those that planned technology
centers underestimated the complexity of the projects, willingness of
volunteers to staff such centers, and a number of the centers closed up
quickly.  Those that allied themselves with public libraries, schools,
and existing community organizations to provide public access fared much

There were other reports from Mexico, Peru, Argentina, and almost half
the time was set aside for open discussion.  This was extremely valuable
because many of those attending had never met with colleagues to share
ideas and problems. During the regular conference there was no time set
aside for general discussion by the group during plenary lectures, but
some of the sessions were organized to encourage just that.  I found the
one on community networks and cooperatives to be a good mix of short
presentations, discussion and the proposal to have projects organize
using coop principles and to use the new .coop domain which is
administered by the International Cooperative Association. The man in
charge, Byron Henderson, helped organize Saskatoon Freenet  in Canada in
the early 1990's.


Although there was no designated area for handouts and publications,
attendees left a variety of pamphlets, newsletters, and advertisements
for services and publications. IDRC in Canada supported the publication
of two new works: "Social movements on the net" by Leon, Burch, and
Tamayo of the Latin Ameican Information Agency and a collection of
essays in Spanish, "Internet y Sociedad en América Latina y el Caribe:
Investigaciones para sustentar el dialogo."Valerie Peugeot of Vecam
edited a French collection of essays (not yet in English) called "Human
networks, electronic networks." Peter Benjamin of the University of Wits
in South Africa brought a brochure--"Damn the digital divide"-- with
short pieces on programs and BINGOs undertaking ICT projects in Southern

A Sampling of Sessions

There were plenary sessions on social access to ICT (information and
communication technology); community networks and globalization,
multiculturalism, a session on Latin American developments, and the "S"
word: sustainability.  In addition there were many workshops on
community networks intersecting with issues relating to women, kids,
education, cities, telecenters, rights, open source, academic research,
human rights, and local culture. A mixed media session stressed the
importance of media production, television and radio. Dirk Koning of the
Grand Rapids (Michigan) Community Media Center talked about the suite of
programs they offer: public access television, a wireless network to
allow a mobile van to bring a rack of digital camcorders and Apple
laptops and be connected by a high speed link back to the center. Others
reminded us not to overlook radio which is reaching billions more people
than computer networks are (or will, even in the most optimistic
diffusion scenarios for the Internet).

Indigenous issues

A plenary session on "multiculturalism and identity" included a talk by
Robyn Kamira, a Maori woman who used volunteers from the audience to
explain the shifting relationship between the Maori people and the
Crown. She showed that the ideal of multiculturalism is not that
beneficial for everyone. After the arrival of white settlers, there were
just two groups, roughly equal. As with many other indigenous groups
around the world, the Maroi  lost much of their land, their health, and
their language.  Because of a multiculturalism policy, the Maori are
just one of many groups vying for benefits and representation in a
country that is becoming more ethnically mixed. However, they have made
gains in education, the criteria for group self-definition, and income
from fishing rights. Their language revitalization program is one of the
more successful (besides Catalan and Hebrew) and has inspired other
indigenous groups to adapt their methods to local conditions.

Eusebio Mino Castro gave a  virtual tour of the telecenter project in
rural Peru that served his people, the Ashininka. However, at the end of
August it was destroyed by an arsonist, and the criminals have not been
caught. Even the reason for the damage is unclear. Some thought it was
Sendero Luminoso; others said it was done by people upset at the changes
brought about by the Internet. Or it may be have jealousy over his
successful project in this remote part of South America.

Comments on the Conference

I talked to various attendees who had both praises and criticisms for
the conference.  The organizers were generous in scholarships to keep
the cost of registration very low (or free for many), and most of the
hotel services (food, audio visual, translation devices) were quite
good. However, there was a lack of information on the web site which had
problems with design, passwords, and files not found. At present it does
contain almost all of the papers and abstracts submitted to the
conference. For some, the ideas and contacts opened up new worlds, but
one person felt he learned nothing new in his field of interest
(telecenters). It was hard to publicize ad hoc meetings during the
conference. A group of us wanted to have a meeting to discuss wireless
projects, but the floor manager consulted someone and said there would
be no meetings publicized or allowed that were not on the schedule.
Nevertheless, we  went to a restaurant for lunch to talk about 802.11b
networks and satellite access.  Several people noted that the same
people showed up on the program in session after session, and many of
these were from the Secretariat. A wider selection of speakers would
have been a good idea.

It would be good to have had time for an organized open forum for
discussion of issues that went beyond 15 minutes for Q&A - something
more formal than a long coffee break where good discussions always take
place. As in 2000, the conference did not have too many people who
identified themselves from the business or corporate sector though there
were papers on small enterprises and economic development. Without
having them dominate the program next year, it would be good to invite
some thoughtful people from technology companies to speak or at least
attend the Montreal meeting.

The "S" word...sustainability

At the end of the Congress Susana Finquelievich, the driving force
behind the whole affair, gave a sober assessment about the
sustainability of community networks in Argentina. Some money can be
raised under the banner of community networking, and some people will
pay for services not offered in, for instance, a cybercafe.  However, it
may not be enough to keep a telecenter going. How long this period of
aid and subsidies lasts depends on the environment, and not just the
financial status of the center. As Michel Menou commented in another
session, "there are not prefabricated models, no solutions that apply
everywhere." Finquelievich said that a variety of innovations to allow
different kinds of payment and participation needs to be used: paying
with labor, incubation services for entrepreneurs, and the granting of
course credit to university students as has been done in Costa Rica.

Several of the organizers worked late into the night to try and
summarize the findings or recommendations from the many panels (5) and
workshops (17). These were read rapidly in Spanish by Silvia Senén
González in the closing session. It was clear that a lot of ground was
covered, and some of the points were contradictory.  But who said
citizens have to agree? At the time of this report I could find no
online summary of the conclusions.

The Future

What happens next? Besides the annual meetings, there are some who want
to establish ties with some very different sorts of global meetings: (1)
the World Social Forum(5) in Porto Alegre, Brazil--a place that attracts
thousands of activists, many of whom are opposed to the way that
globalization promotes the spread of capitalism and (2) the 2003 ITU
conference on the Information Society(6). The team guiding that
conference includes UN division heads, Mike Moore of the World Trade
Organization, and heads of many companies. Quite a different crowd from
Porto Alegre.

Many members of the secretariat decided to tackle the issue of
governance. What sort of organization should be formed to accommodate
groups with such different interests, and how would a diverse consortium
be represented at other meetings. Can a single person represent such a
diverse mix of citizens networks? Or will the principles that all agree
are worth supporting be such a low common denominator that it will
attract no attention because they are so non-controversial. Over the
next few months a task force will try to work out a plan for a legal
entity with international scope. A mailing list now on Yahoo Groups will
be moved to a server outside of the U.S.A.  Look for future postings
about the next conference, proceedings from this one, and ways to take
part in 2002. What I will look for in an international organization are
services that benefit the grass roots practitioner, the ones who usually
do not go to conferences but, if they find value or meaning in a new
organization, will probably support it.


(1) Lawrence Lessig, "The Internet Under Siege", Foreign Policy Nov/Dec

(2) Congress web site (includes all of the papers and presentations in
the original language):

(3) Somos {AT} telecentros:

(4) Grand Rapids Community Media Center:

(5) World Social Forum:

(6)ITU Conference on World Information Society:

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