springer|in: Collective Amnesias_Property and Theft in the Infosphere


springer|in – heft 1/06: Collective Amnesias

Property and Theft in the Infosphere

On the conference »World-Information City«

Christa Benzer

The southern Indian IT metropolis of Bangalore was both the venue and the subject of the conference »World-Information City«, which focused on the way access to knowledge and information is restricted by Intellectual Property- and copyrights.

If you have a valid visa in your European passport, you will have no problems getting through the international airport in Bangalore. But what is much more difficult is crossing a street there, with hundreds of rickshaws and motorbikes contending with another, rather loudly, in the city’s unregulated traffic system.

For this reason, the large foreign IT companies and call centres that have set up shop in Bangalore in recent years have again been considering moving to other Indian cities. So Bangalore’s completely overloaded infrastructure became one of the topics at the conference »World-Information City« – organised in part by the Vienna-based group Netbase – where international theorists, activists and artists examined the global consequences of current digital information politics.

In fact, the huge software parks of IBM, Siemens, HP, Intel, Infosys etc. stand like fortresses in the so-called IT corridors, which are largely detached from the city itself. According to David Lyon, an American surveillance researcher, who was able to gain access to a call center years ago, multiple internal security precautions also ensure a highly monitored exchange with the city, whose name is now synonymous with the large-scale outsourcing of business and labour processes to low-wage countries.

Until December 2004, the greatest concern of the transnational corporations based there was the protection of their »intellectual property«: their technologies, trademarks, patents, and, not least, their business processes, which can now also be patented. When India joined the WTO, however, it was also obliged to implement TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights), whereas up to then a special patent law had allowed the production of cheap medical imitation products. Now that India is also bound to respect the rules of the WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation), the production of these so-called generic drugs, which used to go mainly towards medical care in Africa, now entails high license fees.

The fact that the old redistribution struggles are taking on completely different forms owing to the digital technologies was in fact the main theme of the conference. One of the main speakers – the Indian urbanist Solomon Benjamin – talked about unprecedented forms of dispossession caused by a ruthless »colonisation« policy on the part of the IT industry. In his analysis of the structural changes in the city brought about by technology and globalisation, he focused on the digitisation of the land register, often presented as an advance that makes it easier for small farmers to gain access to extracts from the register and thus to loans. Benjamin however spoke about the new alliances between the real estate industry and the IT industry that have arisen because of this; both sectors, he said, were very adept at exploiting this »open« access to the land register as a promising profit-making investment offer from the city.

During a tour of the city with a commentary provided by Benjamin, the concrete consequences of these complex property issues were obvious, as was the social fragmentation of the city, which David Lyon, in his talk entitled »Surveillance, Security and Social Sorting in the City«, defined as a characteristic of an »information city«. He related how, at the call centres, the postcodes of the callers are noted before their wishes are heard. In this way, he said, people are categorised before they can even express themselves, and orders or complaints were welcome only from people living in the better (global) areas. According to Lyon, this common practice has far-reaching consequences, as this consumption-oriented recording of data is also used in urban planning. This means that those urban residents who have no voice in the consumer world remain unheard in other democratic political processes as well. As for the attempts by the champions of intellectual property rights to increase criminal legislation in this area, Lyon fears even worse consequences: he predicts that social practices in societies could change radically if an act of solidarity such as »sharing« were now to be described as a criminal offence.

Solidarity, at least of a symbolic nature, is doubtless one main reason why Solomon Benjamin, and other speakers as well, often stressed the importance of the shadow economy (e.g. in the slums), which, they say, helps considerably in the fight against the digital »data lords« and »intellectual property regimes«: in their everyday practice, the illegal media networks and software pirates create manifold forms of alternative media use and thus »pass on the wealth of the information era«.
The media theorist Felix Stalder took a less idealising view of things than his Indian fellows in his explanation of the specificities of the informal sector, then went on to demand a comprehensive redefinition of creativity: according to his theory, intellectual property rights will be dropped in the long term only when ideas are no longer directly connected to products.

At present, widespread and highly financed illegalisation campaigns are demonstrating that the world is not yet ready for this step. For this reason, a public poster campaign initiated by Netbase was also an important part of the project, alongside exhibitions and workshops. And while the anti-illegalisation campaign »Delinquents« of Ulrike Brückner warned of the increasing criminalisation of society, Sebastian Luetgert was conspicuous in the urban space with his »Good Questions«. »If Intellectual Property Is Just Borrowed From The Public Domain Then Why Can’t The Public Claim It Back?« was one of his questions, which deconstructed some of the central myths regarding the alleged necessity of copyrights.

The fact that free access to knowledge and information and thus active involvement in shaping social processes is at present being increasingly promoted in India as well was also made evident at the conference: the active participants included not only the representatives of the Indian institutions that co-organised the event (Saria, Mahiti, Alternative Law Forum), but also young Indian academics and small initiatives like the UNESCO-backed project »voicesforall«. Taking a central idea of the open-source movement as its point of departure – that information is not used up when several people share it -, its community radio, based in a small village near Bangalore, focuses on the joint reappraisal and distribution of locally relevant knowledge and critically analysed information. After security reasons were put forward as a pretext for banning the initiative from going on the air, the inhabitants of Budikote and four other nearby villages are now linked via television cable or public loudspeakers.



Filed under: research, social, urban

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