Useful Fools?

by Digital Rights LAC on March 1, 2014

Tontos - (CC BY 2.0) phill.lister OK

In December 2013, just when South Africa said its final goodbye to Nelson Mandela, the man who made possible changing the direction of his country, hundreds of people interested in the subject of intellectual property and the way it affects our lives, were attending the third Global Congress on Intellectual Property and the Public Interest in Cape Town.

By Pablo Francisco Arrieta

An event that occurred first in Washington and then in Rio de Janeiro, this time travelled to a new continent: Africa. While among the attendees and speakers there were law experts and activists who have long worked on access to medicines, limitations and exceptions to copyright, patents, access to technology, there were also present people whose work is a bit more distant to decision-making.
Civil society are those people who do not have much knowledge of policies governing the destinies of the technology, but that buy and use devices, in everyday life, that support the corporate and educational environment, nourishing it. We are all electing politicians who will be responsible for the future of the digital universe, but in most cases that do not have the best training in the subject. That is, we are the ones giving money and vote for developing both apparatus and laws that cover them.

And of course, as there is no knowledge of what happens in the digital fields, we prefer to have strong and paternalistic laws where we feel protected from bandits and bad actions. But, by not having clear who and how can we be attacked, we allow others to speak on our behalf and make the rules “protecting us.” This unceremoniously of how strict they are that not only end up drowning evils but any beneficial innovation and ability that technology provide us, destroying the basic Internet principles, and incidentally obliterating privacy and free speech concepts.

The world has seen a rapid change. From a geographically separate reality in which communications were confined to certain areas and where large masses’ interests could be addressed easily, we have passed to a reality in which school-aged children are able to share their interests with anyone in the world that is connected to a computer. But sadly, this democratization of communication tools has happened with disregard of rights and opportunities that exist in the digital environment for the majority of citizens.

That is why it is an obligation for those who see the importance of these issues (not only lawyers or policymakers) to participate in events where topics such intellectual property, access to technology, public interest, human rights, freedom of expression and education are discussed. It is not just good to become acquainted but it is our duty as digital citizens.

Another delicate point is that in our developing countries we are under the impression that we are only consumers of technology, and other nations are the ones producing them. And while this may be true, it is to the point of tool production, not on content creation. Our nations, by embracing technology in the way they have done it, are using it daily for the creation of what is our cultural and social heritage. That is why more than tools, they are instruments in which our own voices and expressions are being channeled. Precisely at the Global Congress, we learned about the experiences of those working in the African continent and witness how their traditional knowledge is now being digitized and marketed without nations doing much to impose rules that are strategic to them and not for service providers. By taking part in these discussions, we are able to question how we can make the Internet access more congruent with the realities we live locally.

Creators or Consumers, It Is Our Decision

In recent years the entertainment industries have been set their property in our land to deliver contents. While we have never been short on artistic creations, interestingly, today the content created in distant lands has a greater influence. So, instead of promoting various local expressions, content industries have flattened options and our people is a consumer that faintly produced. But, as studies on the subject stated, by having better digital access ways and affordable prices, our nations are massive content producers and in doing so, they improve their economic prospects.

Often it is the industry voice and their complaints what is heard. Consequently, we face the paradoxical situation where countries that are unimportant for large companies to have present in them, are becoming in harsh threats as “pirate” nations. And policymakers, fearing commercial penalties, condemn their inhabitants to absurd limits so cultural providers can feel serenity.

If civil society takes more seriously these situations rather than give up rights, we should demand equality and should propose other solutions. Countries like mine, Colombia, loaded with cultural sources, prefer imposing restrictive legislation at a rapid pace before taking debates about the real possibilities that brings the digital to our culture. And the worst is that the members in our communities that have been historically violated, are the ones who are most affected when such decisions occur.

We are indebted to education and access for the development of communities that due to of geographical and economic reasons have not had the chance for advancing and solving many of their basic needs. And by leaving key decisions in the hands of technocrats, multinational corporation employees, international organizations associated with industry and corrupt or poorly informed politicians, civil society loses the possibility of becoming a voice, perhaps the strongest one in these conversations.

Spins and manoeuvers

If the meetings occur in Europe and North America, should society have to blindly accept these decisions? In the opposite case, European nations would not accept it without reviewing the agreed terms by the South. But more than a confrontation between parties, we should see these manoeuvers for controlling, improving or legislating digital environments as dialogues in which all parties are taken into consideration under equal conditions. While money-wise our markets will not be as large, it may be that as we are so many in our regions, we can have a strong voice easier to be heard, and not just on trade issues but also political, as is occurring this time in Venezuela.

During the Global Congress, we learned from the voice of activists like Jamie Love the complicated processes that have taken decades of work for humanity to have access to drugs regardless of their geographic location, as well as the problems still facing those industries. We had a chance to watch the documentary “Fire in the Blood” with the presence of producers and physicians who have been involved in protests that have allowed access to many previously blocked HIV drugs. Listening to their stories, as well as those of activists who work in areas of armed conflict or strong political confrontations, we understood that it is impossible to separate the digital world and its processes from these other human life aspects. Everything is now interconnected and it is important to have evidence to analyze the big picture and not to think they are isolated situations and troubles.

It is up to us keeping the network active and constant flow of information, since our experiences contribute to nurture a movement capable of reacting to situations that demand clear answers and that are difficult to understand separately.

While corporations have gigantic resources and strong lobbying groups, decisions taken by phone companies, pharmaceutical industries, digital content businesses cannot ignore the interests of the society they serve. It is up to us, the “uninformed consumer,” let them know what we think about them and the way we will accept the conditions imposed on us. Only an informed society is competent to modify, or even stop, the purpose of those who only seek to meet market targets to satisfy investors.

As civil society we must understand that far beyond being simple buyers that are surprised by the technological spins and innovations, we are responsible for building a more inclusive and democratic digital reality where decisions are generated by many and not as result of trading strategies that, without realizing it, take us by surprise and leave us tied up. If there is something we must eradicate from our approach to technology, it is the apathy with which these issues are addressed, and we can (and we shall) do it together.