Thursday, October 27, 2005

A2K Initiative Explores Access to Knowledge

In classrooms and offices at Yale Law School, a coterie of students, faculty, and fellows have been avidly discussing the concept of "access to knowledge." The Information Society Project has launched a broad initiative on the subject--the A2K Initiative--including a seminar, a reading group, and an upcoming conference. "It's been a very intense semester so far," says David Tannenbaum '07, one of the participants in those discussions.

You may not yet have heard of the A2K movement, but the ISP hopes to play a big role in defining, thinking about, and implementing the nascent concept.

Eddan Katz, the executive director of the ISP, describes the effort: "We're trying to understand the intersections between innovation and creativity and the technologies that allow them, with a development agenda." Under this definition, studying "access to knowledge" means looking at issues like how patents on medical drugs are enforced, internet regulation, government transparency, and the availability of educational resources.

In part, the A2K Initiative is responding to what Katz sees as powerful forces that favor increased intellectual property rights and corporate control over knowledge by taking a broad look at which information policies actually promote human well-being. Says Katz, "What we're seeing empirically... is that maximizing protections through IP rights is not always the answer and is sometimes an impediment." The YLS group is also building on a broader movement that has arisen since the World Intellectual Property Organization agreed to consider how its decisions affect developing countries.

While the ISP's focus has usually been on issues of law and technology, Katz points out that A2K "is not just geek, hacker stuff; it's about food and medicine."

Deborah Cantrell, the director of the Arthur Liman Program, is co-teaching the A2K reading group and participating in other aspects of the initiative. She says that while A2K might not immediately seem like a public interest law issue, "Of course this is public interest, because knowledge relates to basic human needs and rights." She gives several examples of how access to knowledge can directly affect people's lives. "How far do you have to walk to your nearest library? How far do you have to walk to the nearest school? What knowledge do you have about diseases in your area?"

Jack Balkin, the Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment and director of the ISP, says that studying A2K allows the ISP to combine its expertise in technology law with an interest in human rights and a global perspective. "It's central to the whole reason we began the ISP, because we were interested in how the world was going to change with the information revolution."

Balkin adds that the time is ripe for the A2K movement, as technological development increasingly determines health and wealth. He notes that various treaties and agreements are being developed to harmonize information policies between nations. "We want to make sure that when this happens, countries adopt information policies that won't hinder innovation and won't hinder human development."

The A2K seminar, which is being taught by Professor Yochai Benkler, along with Balkin, is working toward writing a set of rigorous, empirical papers developing and assessing A2K. The concrete question behind the project, according to David Tannenbaum, is "How do you facilitate access to knowledge to promote development and innovation?" They have begun with a theoretical discussion of what access to knowledge means and why it's important, and will move on to study which information policies are most effective, and finally to analyze the political economy of A2K.

Tannenbaum says that the discussions between students with a human rights background and students with a technology background (like him), along with the insights of experienced faculty, have been extremely helpful in thinking through these issues. They've also carried the collaboration outside the classroom. Tannenbaum set up a website using Wiki software, which allows every member of the seminar to post draft papers and notes and to exchange comments. "We're thinking about these different modes of production," says Tannenbaum. "We should try a different mode of production ourselves." Besides, he adds, "It's been really fun to use this tool."

Over the next few years, the students and faculty who make up the A2K Initiative plan to build on all they're learning by developing a watch list of countries that have good information policies and those with harmful policies. They hope to eventually support and advise countries and NGOs that try to institute sound A2K policies.