On eve of UN summit, progress made on global information, tech agreements

15 November 2005

On the eve of a major summit that aims to bridge the “digital divide” – the gap in access to information technologies between affluent and poor communities – the head of the United Nations telecommunications organization said that there was already headway on major issues and attendance had surpassed expectations.

In his opening remarks to the press on the eve of the Tunis phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), to be held from 16 to 18 November, the Secretary-General of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Yoshio Utsumi, announced that by this morning, 23,000 participants had registered with 12,000 arrivals recorded so far.

About 173 countries are represented at the Summit and over 50 heads of State and Government are expected to attend.

While the first phase – held in Geneva in 2003 – established the principles of the Information Society and outlined an action plan, the Tunis phase is the “Summit of Solutions,” Mr. Utsumi said.

He hailed progress in the negotiations toward that end, especially the headway made this morning on Internet governance. Consensus seems to be emerging on forming a forum to discuss the future of the world-wide network. “This management should be more democratic and multilateral,” he said.

Compromise had yet to be reached on how to implement the action plan, he said, but he was pleased to have achieved nearly 80 per cent of the goals. New ideas have been forthcoming from scientists, and in five years the outlook would be quite different. He was quite confident of connecting the world by 2015, including the 800,000 villages that remain disconnected from information and communication technologies.

“In order to connect these villages we need about $1 billion,” Mr Utsumi said. “Every year about $100 billion is invested in the mobile telephone system, so only 1 per cent of this amount is needed to achieve the target.”

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has arrived in Tunis, has been meeting on information issues with local officials, as well as Israel’s Foreign Minister and heads of UN agencies attending the Summit.

Shashi Tharoor, UN Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, expressed concerns over what he called the “content divide” and freedom of expression, at a press conference on the World Electronic Media Forum (WEMF) taking place in parallel with the Summit.

What passed for global media remained, in reality, the media of the developed West, where most of the world’s Internet hosts were, he said.

“Access to the Internet is growing but is of little value if the bulk of the information that it reveals is in a language you don’t understand or if it fails to deal with life and death questions that affect your family or your society,” he said.

On the issue of press freedom, Mr. Tharoor acknowledged that Internet, the “medium without a passport” posed challenges to all governments as they sought to find a legal environment that fostered freedom of expression without trampling on other legitimate rights.


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