The Future of Rights: Intellectual Property, Economic Inequality and the ‘Digital Divide’

A quarter century since he helped to create it, the man widely regarded as the creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has renewed calls for a Digital Bill of Rights to help preserve the open and innovative character of his invention and to protect human rights in the so-called digital age.

In interviews last week, Berners-Lee was responding to recent revelations of state-based surveillance in the United States and elsewhere. The father of the web also contends that a ‘digital Magna Carta’ would need to address the often-conflicting rights of users and producers in online environments.

Calls for the calibration of competing rights are not new. At least since the early 2000s, legal scholars and social scientists such as Lawrence Lessig, Debora J. Halbert, and James Boyle have articulated arguments about reforming intellectual property (IP) laws for emerging realities. The proliferation of digital and networked technologies continues to facilitate social, economic, and political shifts. New transnational political economic arrangements are premised on the ability to employ information and communication technologies (ICTs) to coordinate global production chains. Scholars studying the impacts of the ICTs argue that decentralized, network technologies are transforming historic relations generated during industrial economic times. Advocates for the rights of creators point out how these changes are disrupting existing business models and threatening entire industries.

IP law regimes—most often in the forms of copyrights, patents, and trademarks—are used to incentivize creative endeavours and to protect the moral rights of creators. In doing so, these legal regimes help to convert knowledge—communicative and cultural resources that circulate within communities and contribute to their maintenance and growth—into marketable forms of rent-seeking information.

However, recent scholarship suggests that these systems have led to two contradictory outcomes: increasing returns for rights-holders and a “digital divide”, whereby there is increasing disparity between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ of contemporary capitalism. Scholars Tzen Wong, Graham Dutfield, and their contributors argue that IP law is regarded as playing various roles in the maintenance of this development disparity. From this perspective, the ‘digital divide’ is a symptom of the global political economy, within which growing inequality between and within states is exacerbated due to differing levels of access to and control over digital technologies and content.

According to Govindan Parayil, while knowledge-based economic activities generate growth and wealth for the owners of proprietary information; this also results in inequity for those with restricted or no access to this information and the ability to use existing knowledge in productive ways. A recent study of transnational corporations conducted by Sean Starrs, a PhD Candidate at York University, highlights how the contemporary political economy is marked by the concentration of wealth in developed states, particularly the United States.

Bridging the digital divide between and within states is becoming a key focus of international and domestic policy initiatives. Civil-society organizations as well as governmental and international organizations and forums have proposed ‘information-communication technologies for development’ (ICT4D) as a means of enabling greater connectivity for disadvantaged persons in post-industrial as well as industrializing states. ICT4D proposes that the proliferation of ICTs will alleviate poverty and inequality by providing new groups with the technological tools necessary to engage in capitalist activities. However, as Jan Nederveen Pieterse points out, this approach often fails to recognize that the digital divide is not entirely digital; instead, the digital divide entails socioeconomic considerations, including the ability to use ICTs as well as digital content for various purposes.

Human rights-based claims are becoming prominent in struggles to address economic inequality and bridge the digital divide. For example, Access to Knowledge (A2K) movements related to international intellectual property debates challenge the privileging of economic and proprietary rights over the rights of users, citizens, and consumers.

Milton Mueller, Professor of Information Studies at Syracuse University, argues A2K movements focused on a number of areas—including life saving medicine, educational materials, biodiversity and the prevention of famine as well as knowledge circulation in digital contexts—have “become a master frame linking many formerly disparate elements of communication and information politics, business, policy, and law. As an intellectual and political movement, A2K is based on a reappraisal of the nature of property rights over information and networks” (p. 12).

As Internet governance and informational policies are adapted to meet contemporary realities, addressing and balancing these sets of rights will be important for bridging the digital divide and economic inequality.

Note: This post is based upon a paper that the author will present at the 55th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association in Toronto, Canada and reflects the on-going work of his dissertation.

Joseph F. Turcotte is an IPilogue Editor, a PhD Candidate and SSHRC Doctoral Fellow in the Communication & Culture Program (Politics & Policy) at York University, and a Nathanson Graduate Fellow at the Jack & Mae Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime and Security at Osgoode Hall Law School.

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