The Maturing of Citizen Networks

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
25 September, 2018
Editorial: 240
Fecha de publicación original: 7 noviembre, 2000

Everything is difficult before it becomes easy

The First Global Congress of Community Networks(Global CN 2000) brought a colourful and varied multitude of people from all over the planet to Barcelona. The meeting turned out to be one of the most fascinating exercises the Internet has to offer these days, namely showing us that the Net can be viewed not just as a catalogue in search of clients, but as a society looking for solutions. The numerous sessions and workshops were a window on initiatives of all colours and flavours, demonstrating the inventiveness of communities both opulent and poor, from North and South and brought together by an intelligent use of technology which allows them, to a certain extent, to remedy the excesses of an economic system orientated by primitive Darwinism. The Barcelona Congress confirmed the conversion of “freenets” or BBS, the community technology centres of the 80s, into mature citizen networks which act both locally and globally via the Internet. Now they will have to decide what role they want to play in the emerging Information Society.

Global CN 2000’s final debate concluded with the decision to create a “Global Association of Community Networks”, an experimental framework yet to be drawn up, within which citizen networks can operate, both individuals and researchers, as well as public and private organisations. Nevertheless, this consensus is based on two different premises. On the one hand, there is the idea of the “Internet for development”, in other words an instrumental conception of the Net as a tool to help overcome the greatest needs in underdeveloped societies. This position is supported by various European states, many citizen networks in Africa and, of course, the UN. The latter, via the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) based in Geneva, has just announced that they are organising an Information Society World Summit in a hitherto undecided place –perhaps Tunisia or Geneva– in the year 2003.

This summit will be prepared via a series of meetings prior to the event, the UN’s usual way of organising things, the first of which is to be held in Dakar next year. Meanwhile, continuity of the Global Congress in Barcelona was also assured by a meeting to be held in Argentina in 2001. This decision grouped together those who maintain that citizen networks, while using the Internet as a tool for development, also constitute a new kind of association in the digital age, new bodies that put neighbourhood, town or city associations online. And, by doing this via the Internet, they are no longer tied down to the local (a characteristic of BBSs and “Freenets”) but can project themselves globally through interaction and cooperation with other citizen and community networks.

The difference between these two concepts is not a minor one and is highly politically charged. In the case of the former, citizen networks would play the typical role of NGOs within the United Nations’ negotiation system. As a result, they would be subject to a barrage of bureaucratic agreements in accordance with definitions of concepts such as development, telecommunications in poor countries, infrastructural requirements and the like. In the latter, citizen networks would be able to operate in a context of democratic participation (although not directly as they would only be represented by those who decide to act via these networks) in the hope of a new society emerging — a Net Society, with new social structures which would act as vehicles for the introduction of information technology in traditional societies. Consequently, the emphasis would not be on the more or less correct use of these technologies, but on the construction of a political model with a capacity for social organisation.

Manuel Castells issued a veiled warning regarding this dichotomy which is arising as a result of the expansion of the Internet. According to this California-based Spanish sociologist, who participated in the debate via videoconference, the first local citizen networks, including municipal initiatives which were hailed as a healthy sign of democracy in action just four years ago, are now just bureaucratic vestiges of themselves. They are unable to compete with dynamic networks capable of organising entire areas of social activity in a local context and, at the same time, establish exchange relationships on a global scale via the Internet, as many organisations from Latin America, the US and Canada, Europe, Africa and Asia proved they can. The autonomy of these kinds of networks contrasts sharply with the interventionism and lack of dynamism of citizens associations that maintain links, to varying degrees, with their respective local administrations or governments.

These two tendencies came face to face in Barcelona and, it has been decided, for the time being anyway, to collaborate within the “Global Association of Community Networks”. The legal framework of this association will have to be explored now, with a consortium or some other kind of body being formed. Artur Serra, chairman of the Barcelona Congress, summed up the final agreement by stating a reality: “We have seen second generation citizen networks, open to civilian society, capable of producing a new breed of enterprising people with the ability to collaborate and negotiate through the Net. Although this is just the very beginning, they also represent the foundations of the the city of knowledge. This will require a specific design created by the participation of both neighbourhood associations, universities, social activists and organisations which one way or the other, play a determining role in shaping the Information Society.”

This social Internet is to hold a second congress in Buenos Aires in November 2001 which will be organised by a series of national, regional and local meetings in different parts of the world prior to the event. The initial plan is to hold a meeting in Dakar one month before this at which the venue for the ITU summit in 2003 will be announced. And, in the meantime, many community networks will have another opportunity to prove their organisational capacity thanks to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s calendar of meetings, determined as they are that spirits won’t flag.

Here is a list of some of the Community Networks at the Global2000



Oridev (Benin)

Anais Network

LatinAmerica Tele-centros (Ecuador)

Proyecto MISTICA(Caribe)

Europe RavalNet (Barcelona, Estado Español)

Iperbole (Bologna, Italia)

United States

Community Technology Centers

Prairienet USA

Translation: Bridget King