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Last Updated: Friday, 3 October, 2003, 11:50 GMT 12:50 UK
Hot air at digital divide summit?
Disagreements between rich and poor countries could derail a UN summit on the digital divide. But technology analyst Bill Thompson wonders if any of it will matter.

Women using computers in Senegal
Can the UN summit make a difference to these Senegalese women?
If all goes to plan then many of the world's leaders will be in Geneva early in December to attend the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

First proposed in 1998, the summit is the culmination of 18 months of detailed planning, including nearly a dozen major preparatory meetings around the world.

WSIS is massive, a major undertaking by the world's leaders and representative bodies, along with hundreds of other organisations and groups.

It aims to "develop and foster a clear statement of political will and a concrete plan of action for achieving the goals of the Information Society", and those organising it claim it could result in the elimination of the digital divide.

Bland compromise?

Last month a meeting that should have finalised all the details in advance of the big event, PrepCom-III, ended in disarray when no agreement was reached over either the Declaration of Principles or the Action Plan.

As a result an emergency meeting is being held early in November, and it is hoped that something can be sorted out then.

Otherwise the 50 heads of state expected in Geneva may discover they have pressing business elsewhere, rather than turning up to sign a bland and potentially embarrassing compromise declaration.

Bill Thompson
Part of me hopes that I will be proven wrong, and that WSIS will really be a significant step forward, but I am not betting on it
name here

The big problem seems to be a fundamental disagreement over whether rich countries should actually provide funds to help poorer countries and people get more computers and install networks, or whether this should be left to private companies.

However a much bigger problem for me was that it was only when BBC News Online and The Register reported on the breakdown of the preparatory talks that I actually realised there was going to be a World Summit, in Geneva or anywhere else.

I know that I am not perfectly informed about all aspects of the net and computing, whatever I may sometimes have said in my more boastful moments.

I realise that there are many exciting developments that pass me by, either because I do not find them interesting or because I'm just too lazy to do the reading and research.

But the intersection between technology and politics, and the ways that governments can regulate and manage the information society which has evolved over the past decade, matter to me.

Recent fuss

I spend time reading about them, I talk at length to my friends and colleagues about them, and I write about the issues on a regular basis.

So how did I manage to miss this one?

Two possibilities occur to me. The first is that I am just sloppy, and that I should have looked more carefully at the newswires, read around more and tried to plug into the types of group that are heavily involved in the summit.

I could live with that. There is so much going on that I can't expect to cover it all, or even be aware of it all.

Village in Bangladesh
Will the information superhighway reach this village in Bangladesh?
However I think that the real reason why I did not know about the summit is simply that it is not going to have any impact, and so nobody in my extended circle of contacts, and none of the reporters who I read regularly, thought it was worth talking about.

Look at the facts. After 18 months of preparatory meetings, there is one article about WSIS on BBC News Online, two on The Register, and none I could find in The Guardian.

The recent fuss seems to have attracted coverage - Google News reports 226 stories - but before then there was little or no reporting of the preparations or potential impact of the event itself.

The implication is clear: the summit is not expected to do anything important, and its outcome is irrelevant to the future of the information society, whatever the delegates may say or the heads of state may sign.

The activist slogan, "think globally, act locally" can be read as an argument against trying to "act globally", because the problems are simply too large and complex, and the proposed solutions inevitably too simple, for any real action at a global level.

When it comes to making the information society a fairer, more equitable place to live than the industrial society ever was, the grand principles espoused in Geneva seem to matter a lot less than support on the ground for wireless networks in the Punjab, refurbished computers in Peru and internet access for all who can use it, wherever they may live.

As luck would have it, it seems I will be going along to the event itself as a reporter with the BBC World Service, so I will get to see for myself whether I am right about this.

Part of me hopes that I will be proven wrong, and that WSIS will really be a significant step forward, but I am not betting on it.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.


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