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2021 Conference of the ECPR Standing Group on Politics and Gender

LiberationTech: The Global Struggle to Govern the Democratic Impacts of ICTs

Muzammil Hussain
University of Washington
Muzammil Hussain
University of Washington

The nation-state traditionally serves as an underpinning unit of analysis for global communications, but globalization scholars argue it is increasingly less-relevant for understanding how media systems develop in emerging regions. How necessary or useful is the state for the shaping and impact of new political communication systems? Using the 2011 popular movements for democratic change in the Arab world as a point of departure, this study tracks an international network of technology activists, communications corporations, and policy makers currently negotiating the governance of communication technologies and the information infrastructure that supports it (ICTs). The Arab revolts have brought these stakeholder and their competing interests to the forefront of global communications policymaking. Over the past two years (December 2010, when the protests began, to December 2012, when the UN’s ITU will renegotiate global telecommunications treaties between 111 countries), several influential democratic nations, including Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, the UK, and the US, have organized stakeholder negotiations at the international level to advance a “liberation technologies” perspective for global communications policymaking. This study investigates this transnational political movement, and examines the relations between these international stakeholders and their vested interests over the political management of ICTs. Data for this study was gathered over six months of intensive fieldwork and interviews with activists in North Africa and the Middle East, participant observation at three high-level stakeholder meetings organized by Western democratic governments, and corroborative evidence from a network analysis of 84,000+ social ties across 5,000+ individual stakeholders and content analysis of over 2,000+ emails exchanged between them over a 5-year period. The findings of this study are relevant to communications policy makers, but particularly so to the scholarly debates on the continued importance of states and governments in designing the norms and regulations governing the political, perhaps democratic, impacts of ICTs.
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