GISWatch: An annual snapshot of the information society, 10 years running

Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) has reached its 10th edition, providing the international community with yearly reports on the state of the information society from the perspective of local civil society organisations and experts from all around the world.

Every year, the GISWatch project, led by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), has focused on a specific theme of particular relevance in the field of information and communications technologies (ICTs) to produce a report that brings together the voices of an ever larger number of countries, to address the key issues of the day. The result is a collective and focused analysis of our constantly evolving information society from a truly global perspective. It is a unique and necessary initiative that has steadily grown in impact and participation over the last decade.

In 2007, the process of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) had ended, but the future of the information society continued to be discussed in various institutions and spheres and by a variety of actors with different levels of involvement. Following these discussions was a challenge for APC and also for its member organisations. In this context, APC identified three interrelated goals and organised a project aimed at achieving them. The goals were to survey the state of the field of ICT policy at local and global levels, to encourage critical debate, and to strengthen networking and advocacy for a just and inclusive information society. The project was GISWatch.

What GISWatch offers is a comprehensive and wide-reaching publication that not only explores the annual themes in depth, but also broadens the range of perspectives presented, through the participation of both international experts and national “watchers” whose country reports share a snapshot of their local realities. A large percentage of the country reports have been contributed by members of the APC network, for whom the project has served as a resource to strengthen their work through critical research, identification of actors and greater local impact. Most of them had previously participated in another APC project that involved the construction of web pages to monitor ICT policies in each country – a project that initiated them on this path of gathering and systematising information on the state of ICT policies and the wide range of related issues and themes.

APC has played a leading role in GISWatch from the beginning, but other organisations have participated in the production of the reports or provided financial support throughout this first decade. The project was launched in 2007 in conjunction with the Third World Institute (Instituto del Tercer Mundo – ITeM), an APC member organisation in Uruguay at the time. In 2008, the Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (Hivos) joined the project, and later, at different periods, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), and more recently, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) have also participated.

Focusing the lens and expanding the field

“Since their launch in 2007, the annual GISWatch reports have become must-read material for analysts and activists concerned with the global social, economic and political effects of information and communication technologies,” states William Drake, director of the Project on the Information Revolution and Global Governance at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva and president of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR). “The insightful thematic reports set the context and focus for each edition, and the regional and country reports provide concise and authoritative overviews of how that focus is playing out ‘on the ground’ around the world.”

Every year GISWatch defines an ICT-related issue or theme as the focus of the edition. The issues addressed often reflect key issues in the field at that particular point in time. Each edition includes a series of thematic reports, usually authored by experts on the theme in question, and most editions also include reports that offer methodological resources for research, such as the identification and collection of indicators, statistics, sources, maps and charts.

The country reports are authored by APC member organisations to a large extent, but also by other civil society organisations as well as individual researchers. The number of countries participating in the project has grown significantly over the years, jumping from 22 in the inaugural report in 2007 to 38 in 2008, and reaching a high point of 57 countries in 2014 and 2015.

The themes that orient each edition are defined by APC and partners in relation to the process of the project and also to contextual events. The 2007 edition focused on participation. It devoted several reports to describing actors involved in ICT policy debates, such as the International Telecommunication Union), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), resulting in a valuable educational resource. As the editor of GISWatch, Alan Finlay, explained: “The reports on institutions and governance can be shared with students to show how complex and complicated engaging with UN bodies can be for rights advocates. Many of them capture the nuances of this engagement, which can be absent from official reports and documents.”

The first edition also focused on the WSIS process convened by the United Nations and its multistakeholder constituency, and pointed especially to the strategies for participation by civil society organisations. It also analysed the space for multistakeholder discussion that emerged from the WSIS process, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which was born just one year before GISWatch.

Regional reports are another approach used in some editions of GISWatch to analyse the specificities and particularities of different groups of countries. The 2008 edition, dedicated to the theme of access to infrastructure, included reports that analysed indicators in the regions of North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, the former Soviet Union, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in addition to the 38 national reports. The 2009 edition, dedicated to the theme of access to online information and knowledge – advancing human rights and democracy, included six regional reports that offered a bird’s eye perspective on regional trends. This edition also included a reflection on indicators that track access to information and knowledge, as well as an innovative section on visual mapping of global rights and political crises.

New trends

In 2010, GISWatch focused on an emerging field of analysis, action and policy: ICTs and environmental sustainability. The edition provided a thorough overview of the bidirectional relationship between ICTs and climate change. The reports addressed a wide variety of issues ranging from green technologies to e-government and internet-enabled activism. “Electronic waste rises to the top of the list and in so doing introduces another gulf: that between developed and developing countries,” noted Anthony Louis D’Agostino from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. “Europeans talk about extended producer responsibility, green public procurement, and video-conferencing. These words are absent from the developing country reports. They are instead filled with descriptions of informal TV recycling on city streets, manufacturing workers at risk of toxics exposure, and obsolete ICTs carelessly thrown into landfills,” he added.

According to Catherine Candano, a research scholar in Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore, “The report highlights that despite the gulf between the fields, there are enough promising pilots (citizen science) and troubling issues (e-waste) for environmentalists and technologists to come to the policy table and dialogue. For substantive policy action to take place and bridge the gulf of these issues, more thoughtful leadership from virtual roundtables like GISWatch is needed to seat together ministers and practitioners from nations of technologies and ecologies.”

The relationship between ICTs and environmental sustainability also touches on other ICT policy issues, such as access. As Bogdan Manolea, executive director of APTI, Romania, points out, the statement that “Every child should have a computer” is frequently heard. “But is that enough for an ICT policy?” he asks. “Should we give every human being on the planet a computer, if we limit the Internet, by ICT policies, to what we want to be (by ignoring net neutrality claims)? Should we give every human being a computer just to be thrown in the backyard at the end of its (short) life? The answer depends probably just on us and how we see ICT policies, beyond the immediate objective,” he noted, adding, “The GISWatch 2010 report suggests to look beyond this immediate objective to a subject that may seem far away from the ICT world: sustainability and protecting the environment.”

In 2011, Frank La Rue, at that time the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, defined the internet as “a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression.” The international press began to talk about access to the internet as a human right, and discussion and analysis of the fulfilment or violation of human rights online gained greater visibility. La Rue himself, in his preface to the 2011 edition of GISWatch, which focused on internet rights and democratisation, stated that the report “offers timely commentary on the future of the internet as an open and shared platform that everyone has the right to access. [..] It makes a valuable contribution to dialogue on freedom of expression, freedom of association and democratisation and seeks to inspire and support collaborative approaches.”

Expert reports in that year’s edition included policy proposals to address the most important challenges facing the protection of human rights on the internet, and touched on such timely issues such as the role of the internet in social resistance; revolutions and cyber crackdowns in the Middle East and North Africa; cyberwarfare and counter-terrorism; and the role of internet intermediaries in terms of content control and freedom of expression. “The report’s country studies – which are in turn saddening, moving, uplifting – shed light on how the internet can truly be a catalyst for change – and how it can be misused,” said lawyer Matthias C. Kettemann, co-chair of the Internet Rights and Principles Coalition. “The people at the centre of these stories are why we got involved in protecting human rights on the Internet.”

GISWatch 2012 tackled the theme of the internet and corruption, exploring the use of the internet to ensure transparency and accountability, the challenges that civil society activists face in fighting corruption, and when the internet fails as an enabler of a transparent and fair society. By focusing on individual cases or stories of corruption, the country reports offered a practical look at the role of the internet in combating corruption at all levels. The thematic reports in this edition posed questions around the success of e-government programmes in fighting corruption, as well as more provocative questions that foreshadowed future concerns: “Is a surveillance society necessarily a bad thing if it fights corruption?”

And then… the Edward Snowden revelations erupted. The 2014 GISWatch edition was entirely dedicated to communications surveillance in the digital age. Although online surveillance, security and privacy were concerns that had been central to human rights activists for years, the revelations by the former National Security Agency contractor of US government spying on citizens brought global attention to these issues. The 2014 edition featured country reports from 57 countries – the highest number in the history of GISWatch until then. Each country report approached the issue from a different perspective: some analysed legal frameworks that allow surveillance, others the role of businesses in collecting data (including marketing data on children), the potential of biometrics to violate rights, or the privacy challenges when implementing a centralised universal health system. Using the 13 International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance as a starting point, the thematic reports framed the key issues at stake, including what we mean by digital surveillance, the implications for a human rights agenda on surveillance, the “Five Eyes” inter-government surveillance network led by the US, cyber security, and the role of intermediaries.

The previous year’s report tackled a pending issue: Women’s rights, gender and ICTs. The choice of this theme for the 2013 edition of GISWatch “responds to this gap and shows why including a gender perspective and surfacing women’s rights in discussions about the internet and technology are a prerequisite for good governance and the full realisation of rights,” stated Jan Moolman, APC Women’s Rights Programme project coordinator. Reports from 46 countries around the globe addressed topics like the rights of domestic workers, trafficking in women, women’s participation in governance, child brides, and the right to abortion. A series of expert thematic reports addressed issues such as access to infrastructure, participation, online disobedience, and sexuality online.

In an institutional overview for the report, entitled “Whose internet is it anyway? Shaping the internet – feminist voices in governance decision making”, Heike Jensen calls attention to the hegemonic framing of issues and agendas in the internet governance field. “Any mainstream political agenda of issues already represents the outcome of power struggles among groups of privileged men, and the outcome of the subsequent policy debate largely reflects which groups of men have achieved dominance, or in gendered terms, which groups of men now represent hegemonic masculinity.”

This exploration of gender-related issues and ICTs was deepened and expanded in the 2015 edition on Sexual rights and the internet. “For many, sexuality goes to the heart of who we are as human beings,” wrote Alan Finlay, editor of GISWatch. “The timing of this publication is critical: many across the globe are denied their sexual rights, some facing direct persecution for their sexuality (in several countries, homosexuality is a crime). While the reports seem to indicate that the internet does help in the expression and defence of sexual rights, they also show that in some contexts this potential is under threat – whether through the active use of the internet by conservative and reactionary groups, or through threats of harassment and violence.”

This GISWatch edition featured stories on the politics of sex and sexual rights online from 52 countries, covering issues that ranged from the challenges and possibilities that the internet offers lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) communities, to the suppression of sexual and reproductive rights including same-sex marriage and the right to legal abortions, to female genital mutilation, the rights of sex workers, violence against women online, and sex education in schools. The country reports presented factual cases of the challenges and risks that LGBT defenders face in Sudan, legal responses to cyber misogyny in Canada, feminist discourse and online pornography in Iceland", and the use of naked bodies as political statement in the Ukraine, to mention just a few. The thematic reports covered issues such as the global policy landscape for sexual rights and the internet, the privatisation of free expression, the need to create a feminist internet, how to think about children and their vulnerabilities online, and consent and pornography online.  

Finally, GISWatch has reached its 10th edition this year. The 45 country reports gathered in the 2016 publication address the theme of human rights and the internet through an innovative approach: they move beyond the usual focus on civil and political rights, such as freedom of expression and privacy, to illustrate the links between the internet and economic, social and cultural rights (ESCRs). Some of the issues addressed are familiar to most ICT for development activists: the right to health, education and culture; the socioeconomic empowerment of women using the internet; the inclusion of rural and indigenous communities in the information society; and the use of ICT to combat the marginalisation of local languages. Others deal with relatively new areas of exploration, such as using 3D printing technology to preserve cultural heritage, creating participatory community networks to capture an “inventory of things” that enables socioeconomic rights, crowdfunding to realise rights, and the negative impact of algorithms on calculating social benefits.

A collective “choral” work and a learning process

GISWatch has been described as “a collaborative monitoring of the implementation of governments’ commitments to the creation of an inclusive information society, carried out by a large number of individuals coordinated in a unique publication.” Although it is repeatedly mentioned, it must be highlighted again that one of the most astonishing aspects of this project is the inclusion of such a large number and wide variety of reports, resulting in what could be called a “choral work”. How is it possible to successfully pull together this collective endeavour, reflecting an enormous variety of realities, from very different cultures? But not only that: how can it be done while also focusing on a particular aspect of this huge and complex world? It sounds challenging.

In the words of editor Alan Finlay, “GISWatch is like a ‘rough guide’ to the information society from a civil society perspective – but one written by those living in the country they are talking about, and who get to see the impact of technology on their lives and in their countries first hand.” The GISWatch edition process involves the challenge of organising up to 50 or more reports, written by members of organisations that form part of the APC network as well as individual researchers of various nationalities from all around the world.

For the writing of national reports, each author receives a guide outlining the structure that every report should follow, including, among other sections, the country’s policy and political framework. From 2011 onwards, a new methodology was proposed for developing the body of the reports: authors were asked to select a significant story, situation or event that illustrates the state of affairs related to the chosen theme in their own countries. This request challenged the authors and organisations responsible for writing the reports to seek out and explore in depth a particular, relevant and illustrative case for study. All reports end with the definition of action steps to follow in each country, which invites authors to look for ways to increase their advocacy, impact and involvement in local policy making.

The writing and editing process involves a fluid exchange between the editor and the individual authors, carried out by email, as is the overall coordination of the publication. Writers also form part of a mailing list, through which they share questions and comments and receive suggested readings, documents and charts. The results could be summed up in the words of Yahia Shukkier, the author of the national reports from Jordan: “I appreciate all your work in improving my report. With your help I feel I am improving my writing from one report to the next one.”

Now that GISWatch has reached the milestone of its 10th edition, it is a fitting time to step back and contemplate the sheer magnitude of the community of people involved in this project over the years: APC and its members, the other organisations involved, the editors, the experts, the writers, the readers. GISWatch is the result of the collective efforts of a huge number of people. All of them share not only a common sphere of interests, in the ICT policy field, but they also share the fact that they are all learning. Each and every actor involved in this process is taking part in a learning process. And for that reason alone, GISWatch is worthwhile and relevant. Imagine if we listed all the other reasons that make GISWatch such an essential initiative.

In the following timeline you can download all the GISWatch reports and its special editions.