Break the technology barrierThe world information summit
GENEVA - The World Summit on the Information Society, which begins Wednesday in Geneva, is in danger of having its main objective - how best to harness the power of information technology for development - overshadowed by differences on a pair of issues.
The first is Internet governance. Many countries are happy with the current, minimalist arrangements under the aegis of the U.S.-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, known as Icann. But others believe there is a need for some intergovernmental framework, as with telecommunications, in order to address transborder problems such as cybersecurity and spam. It should not surprise anyone that consensus is hard to find; this is the first time that this issue has been dealt with on a global level.
The second is press freedom. There are fears that the summit meeting will erode the long-established right to freedom of opinion and expression, especially on the Internet. While talks on Internet governance should continue, when it comes to press freedom there should be no need for discussion.
The information revolution would be inconceivable without the unhindered flow of information. Indeed, those who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 55 years ago might almost have had the Internet in mind when they wrote, in Article 19, that everyone has the right "to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." Of course, there are real concerns about the use of such freedom to spread racial hatred and child pornography. But these can and must be addressed in other ways, such as national legal mechanisms, without eroding a freedom so fundamental to development, democracy and peace.
Important as they are, these issues must not be allowed to dominate the meeting. Too much else is at stake. The "digital divide" is real. It is actually several gaps in one: a technological divide in infrastructure, with 70 percent of the world's Internet users living in the 24 richest countries, which contain just 16 percent of the world's people; a content divide, with nearly 70 percent of the world's Web sites in English and a frequent lack of locally meaningful material; and a gender divide, with women and girls in many countries, rich and poor alike, enjoying less access to information technology than men and boys.
While the explosion in electronic commerce brings some companies and countries closer together, others run the risk of being further marginalized in the global economy; some experts have described the digital divide as one of the greatest nontariff barriers to world trade.
We cannot assume that such gaps will disappear on their own as technology spreads. It requires an act of will: sustained investment and commitment. That is precisely what the summit meeting hopes to elicit from the world leaders and others who attend.
The summit is also an important opportunity for the information technology industry. Now that the market in the developed countries approaches saturation, the future of the industry will depend not only on technological advances but also on reaching the billions of people who remain untouched by the information revolution. The obstacles lie not so much in technology itself, as in a lack of vision and public policy frameworks. Here, too, the summit meeting can provide a catalyst.
Information and communication technologies are not a panacea. But if, over the next decade, access to these technologies could be increased dramatically in the developing countries, the payoff would be substantial. The increase in knowledge and education would create jobs, adding new wealth to national coffers. Trade would expand. Preventive health would improve greatly, helping already burdened systems to save precious resources. Just as significant, but hard to quantify, would be the dividends in human freedom and democratic governance.
The World Summit on the Information Society, organized with my support and that of the entire UN system, is unique. Where most UN conferences focus on global threats, this one will consider how best to use a new global asset. Ultimately, the effort to realize technology's great promise will transcend technology. While technology shapes the future, it is people who shape technology, and decide to what uses it can and should be put.
The writer is the United Nations secretary general.