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  Report on the Conference on "Political Change for the Information Society" (Rome, 19 & 20 March 1999)slide
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Introduction

This conference was a joint initiative of the Italian Government and the European Commission, and was organised by CENSIS 1 . Some 60 high level speakers from consumer organisations, the public sector, international organisations, business and industry, the academic world and research institutes, contributed to the presentations and panel discussions.

The variety of organisations represented guaranteed a diverse approach to the many subjects covered by the programme, which included:

bullet  The role of Public Authorities and the market requirements in the Information Society (IS).
bullet  The impact of new information and communication technologies (NICT's) on politics, democratic participation, and on the relationship between citizens and political institutions.
bullet  The impact of NICT's on the role of political Parties and of the Media.
bullet  On-line democracy as a response to the crisis in politics.
bullet  Transparency and participation in relation to privacy in the IS.
bullet  Promotion of citizens and consumers interests putting them at the heart of the IS.
bullet  The impact of NICT's on the quality of life.
bullet  Suppliers and consumer priorities in the IS.
bullet  Education and training systems in the IS.
bullet  NICT's and public service efficiency.
bullet  Consumer confidence and the global market place.
bullet  Limits of self-regulation and the need for a framework of supranational rules in the IS.
bullet  The need for a Charter of Rights for citizens and consumers in the IS.

Although it was difficult to cover the large range of topics in the limited time (1.5 days) available, the conference was undoubtedly a success judging from the large number (over 600) of participants.

This report attempts to provide an overview of the whole discussion using a thematic rather than a chronological basis.

General themes

Taking an overview of the discussions during the conference, it is possible to group the issues of concern into two broad categories:

bullet The "macro category", which covers the effects of the NICTs on the institutions of society (such as governments, political parties, the media, business, etc.) as well as the effect on certain more abstract aspects of society (such as democracy, economic activity, employment and justice, etc.).
bullet The "micro category", which includes the effects of NICTs on the individual in his/her role as a consumer or a citizen.

The macro category

Effects on constituent institutions of society

The effects of NICTs on political institutions - the State, government, political parties - was a topic of widespread interest. Representatives of all the various groups present, with relatively few exceptions, largely agreed on what the important issues were and even on the broad options for tackling them.

Speakers from government and international institutions emphasised the new role that public authorities had to play in the IS. Firstly NICTs could be used to improve their operations, increase their efficiency and, ultimately, achieve significant cuts in the running costs of public administrations. Secondly, NICTs could help Governments to fulfil their obligation of transparency towards citizens. It was even suggested that the availability of public information on-line could be a benchmark for measuring public sector efficiency.

Some speakers were, however, more cautious and warned against overlooking the potential negative effects and limits of the NICT's. In that respect it was said that NICT's could be dangerous to central government itself, possibly making it obsolete in many sectors and facilitating tax evasion thus reducing one of its main sources of revenue. Moreover, whilst competition could be introduced in political life through networked citizens, on-line participation could not be a substitute for the political decision making process.

Representatives of industry and business thought public authorities should take a lead in promoting public participation by investing in NICT's and actions to enhance PC literacy. They agreed with Government representatives on the need to develop the use of NICT's in public administrations and on the positive effects that this would have on efficiency and the promotion of the use of NICT's by the general public.

Whilst speakers from the academic shared these ideas, they were, nevertheless, especially concerned because NICT's in general, and "electronic democracy" in particular, would allow the citizen to bypass traditional intermediaries. They also mentioned the changes in the very nature of public administrations and the need for them to become "service providers" by making extensive use of NICT's.

The effects of the NICT's on the media were not overlooked. Government representatives, among others, pointed out that the NICT's would challenge the traditional media's current strong position in the provision of information. The transmission of the conference on-line in real time, and the video recording of the entire proceedings, courtesy of "RadioRadicale"2), was a pertinent illustration of the possibilities of the NICTs.

The effects of the NICT's on business were mentioned by virtually all the parties to the discussion. Speakers from business and industry drew attention to the fact that the EU, as a whole, lagged behind the US as far as use of the Internet and of the NICTs in general was concerned. This was especially notable in the creation of indigenous software and content, the bandwidth of the networks, Multimedia and PC equipment and, of course, competitive prices, all of which were pointed out as restraining economic activity relating to the IS in the EU. It was also mentioned that publicly owned information had great market value and businesses would be interested in exploiting this information. SMEs, in particular, have difficulties in finding useful information on public services.

Representatives of government maintained that enhancing consumer confidence was essential if E-commerce was to take off. The lag of the EU, compared to the US, could be overcome by networking backward regions and by the use of distance learning ("tele-education").

Effects on some fundamental concepts of society

Besides the effects on the social institutions themselves, the NICT's will also have an impact on important concepts such as democracy and justice, that contribute to the development of society. Such effects will, of course, have direct or indirect repercussions on the above-mentioned institutions.

Several government representatives pointed out that the NICT's could enhance democracy in various ways. In particular, they could help overcome the "silence" of citizens in between elections, which is one of the weaknesses of representative democracy. This could be achieved by helping citizens maintain continuous active participation in the decision-making process. NICT's could also facilitate access to public information, which is another important principal of democracy.

On the other hand, modernising democracy through NICT's could also lead to a digital dictatorship by well-organised minorities. Speakers from consumer organisations emphasised the need to ensure open access to decision making, maintaining that consumers have the right to contribute to policy-making and should not just be recipients of policy decisions. The representatives of the academic world thought that there is a clear lack of awareness by citizens about the political potential of the NICT's.

A distinct dichotomy of views emerged on the question of regulation in the Information Society. Speakers from the business side maintained that the IS should rely on self regulation and good business practice, or if there must be any regulation, it should protect the market and not strangle it. The need for a common supranational framework for E-commerce transactions was also mentioned.

Consumer representatives took the opposite view and argued that self-regulation would not be sufficient, and that there was a need for proper regulation. Furthermore, they insisted on the need to reinforce antitrust and competition law in the EU, especially in the perspective of E-commerce. This approach was supported by speakers from the government side, who also stressed the need for rules and regulations for the IS made by legitimate institutions. They also considered existing international conventions to be insufficient for E-commerce, and raised the difficulties that current regulatory practice (such as EU directives) have in keeping up with the fast evolving phenomenon that is the IS.

As for the effects of the NICT's on economic activity, consumers' representatives stressed two issues:

bullet  Unfettered competition could harm the interests of consumers and citizens.
bullet  NICT's would reinforce social inequalities if no action is taken to ensure that basic rights (such as the right to information and to education) are respected.

Some academic speakers thought that the future of the NICT's didn't lie necessarily with big industry, as much of the development of the Internet had been the result of individual initiatives and efforts. The government side tended to perceive the NICT's as a potential threat for employment especially in public administrations and other services such as banking, whereas the academic side drew attention to the close link between training and employment in the IS.

At the Micro level

As far as the effects of the NICT's on the individual consumer and citizen was concerned, the discussion covered especially the issues of accessibility, empowerment, and protection.

The issue of access to the NICT's and to the global networks was considered by government representatives to be based on the right to use technology, and the need to facilitate access to such technology was clearly identified. Consumer organisations stressed the need for governments to promote access and equity in the IS. Furthermore they maintained that action needed to be taken in order that NICT's do not only benefit the richest and better educated. One of the principal constraints on the use of NICT's was, according to the academics, the limited penetration in some countries of the EU as compared to the situation in the USA.

However, the possibility of accessing global networks had to be complemented by the right to have access to information, and the consumer side stressed that it was an obligation of governments to respect the basic right to information. Access to products and services was also mentioned with the government side maintaining that the NICT's would allow for better choice and prices for the consumer.

The issue of empowerment of the citizen and consumer in the IS was tackled by all speakers in terms of participation in the democratic process as well as in the shaping of the IS itself. Government representatives maintained that the NICT's could lead to a new "agora", raising participation in the democratic process and in politics in general. They could bring the government closer to the citizen and provide greater transparency. However, whilst NICT's empower individuals, there was a clear need to prevent social exclusion in the IS, raise awareness, make sure that consumers are heard and focus on the needs of vulnerable individuals. Speakers from consumer organisations maintained that until now there hasn't been enough consultation of consumer organisations either by government or by business as far as consumer needs and expectations were concerned. The academic side also agreed that NICT's empower individuals, maintaining that they where the one that would take the internet in the next century, and not necessary the corporate interests. The business representatives saw the NICT's as an egalitarian force given that any citizen can enter information on the network regardless of his position or role in the society.

Education was perceived by the government side as being a key element in empowering the citizen/consumer in the information society, giving competence in the use of NICTs the same level of importance as literacy. The academic side however maintained that little progress had been made in introducing NICT's into education and that the achievements were often overestimated. They also mentioned that the NICT's failed to contribute effectively to education due to a lack of bandwidth and the resistance of teachers to adopt it.

On the issue of protection of the citizen and consumer, the debate was somehow larger. The government side saw a need to protect the citizen from abuse/misuse of the NICT's that could endanger their right to privacy. Furthermore it was maintained that the use of NICT's raised the issue of redress and access to justice for the citizen and consumer at a trans-national level. Some suggested that the best way to deal with that problem would be to apply the law of the country of residence, whereas other government representatives suggested that, due to the inadequacy of the national law, consumer protection should rely on self-regulation. It was also stressed that the lack of privacy, of security and integrity of transactions and of adequate consumer protection, contributed to a lack of confidence of consumers.

The consumers organisations' representatives suggested going beyond national action and pointed out the need to organise consumer protection on a global scale. A proposal was made for the establishment of an international institution to cover consumer protection, in the same way that the World Trade Organisation concentrates on world trade. They also stressed the need to measure the effects of public policy, EU directives, OECD guidelines on the private individual, and that there was a clear need for a long-term strategy, and not just directives, for the Information Society.

In general, there was general agreement that the NICT's should improve the quality of life of citizens and consumers in both the short and the long run provided the necessary measures and safeguards are put in place.

Taking account of all the issues raised through the conference, Commissioner Emma BONINO saw the need for an alternative way of dealing with the concerns of the citizens and consumers in the information society. She proposed the development of a "Charter for the Rights of Citizens and Consumers in the Information Society". It would be one way of ensuring that the expectations of consumers and citizens were heard and made widely known. It could provide a set of benchmarks against which to measure progress made by all parties to achieving a consumer and citizen friendly IS.

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1  CENSIS stands for Fondazione Centro Studi Investimenti Sociali (CENSIS), a research institute in Rome, Italy.

2  See www.radioradicale.it

 
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