Thoughts on A2K

Marlyn Tadros, Ph.D.

Access to knowledge is defined as the desire "to protect and enhance [expand] access to knowledge, and to facilitate the transfer of technology to developing countries." [Draft Treaty on A2K pdf] It is now a full-fledged campaign that links the issue of access to the fundamental principles of justice, freedom, and human rights. In particular, A2K deals with intellectual property rights [and WIPO] and the issue of open access to knowledge, which was a major contentious issue at the World Summit for the Information Society. It also deals with open access and the public domain, creative commons licenses and copyright laws.

The Berlin Declaration [2003] defined open access as "a comprehensive source of human knowledge and cultural heritage that has been approved by the scientific community" and states that "In order to realize the vision of a global and accessible representation of knowledge, the future Web has to be sustainable, interactive, and transparent. Content and software tools must be openly accessible and compatible."


The goal of access to knowledge is to improve access to four components of the knowledge economy: access to human knowledge, access to information,  access to KEG's [Knowledge-embedded goods] , access to tools for producing KEG' (Jack M. Balkin)

At the A2K4 conference at Yale [12-13 Feb, 2010] discussions arose as to the discourse that needs to be used for promoting A2K: should it be an access/capabilities discourse or a human rights discourse? This of course implies whether the discourse is one of access or protection, since traditionally, the human rights discourse is one of negative rights that tackle protection issues: protection from violence, protection from bodily harm, protection from invasion of privacy etc. It also is usually an issue of an individual vis a vis the State.

The Western human rights discourse, and one which has been exported to and adopted by, many developing countries especially those under repressed regimes, deals mainly with what is known as "negative rights": those include  political and civil rights and focus on issues of democracy, fair elections, state vs citizens issues. It is more of an individualistic approach to rights because it deals with the right of the individual to basically be left alone.

"Eastern" human rights discourse, on the other hand, deals with positive rights such as social, economic and cultural rights, including right to housing and health etc. - as adopted by countries such as  the former Soviet Union and  the Eastern bloc in general and some countries of the Global South including Cuba. It is more focused on developmental issues excluding political and civil rights. It looks at issues from a collective perspective and generally has nothing to do with what an individual can do but what a state can do for the individual.

Clearly both approaches are narrow and wanting but each also has its advantages and disadvantages when dealing with A2K.

What are the implications of using a capabilities discourse [or a "distributed justice" discourse] rather than a rights discourse? To its proponents, a human rights discourse will evidently link access issues to online filtering, censorship, and democratic media. They see the focus of A2K as skewed if  it is shifted on a focus on  the technology and not the government abuse of it.  The human rights discourse would use already existing universal standards and would therefore not place one country’s interest over another. The issue therefore becomes one of  tying technology to progressive issues – eg. freedom of speech etc.. In addition, the term 'distributed justice' has 'socialist' implications and therefore will not gain popularity with many actors in the Global North.

To its proponents, a capabilities discourse is the way to go. It is important for a "knowledge economy" which is largely a matter of human development. The right to access infrastructure, the right to access knowledge for health and medicine and education all could be re-framed to one of ability to access rather than right to access. This shifts the responsibility squarely on to governments and states. They also see the 'ethics approach' as insufficient and want to focus on the socio-technical impact. In addition a rights discourse tends to turn off many state players, whereas a capabilities one might entice them to participate without feeling threatened.

The A2K movement could benefit from both the rights approach and the capabilities approach and should not make them mutually exclusive. If tboth approaches could be combined into a new declaration using language from previous documents, that would guarantee a universal approach to A2k.