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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 November 2007, 14:11 GMT
Access key talking point at forum
By Helen Clegg
In Rio de Janeiro

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Connecting the next billion users to the net was one of the key talk points of the second annual UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Rio de Janeiro.

More than 1,700 people took part in the event, hailing from government, private sector, NGOs and members of the public. They gathered to debate the current and future use of the internet.

Delegates came from around the world and in the opening day, in one Q&A session, within the space of 10 minutes there were voices from Africa, Russia, France, Costa Rica, Japan and China.

The forum is designed as a space for debate and this year access for all was high on the agenda.

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IGF's executive co-ordinator Markus Kummer said that "access was still the single most important issue to all".

However, there were several pressing social issues all on the agenda, which reflect the growth, un-chartered and sometimes hazardous nature of the internet, such as child protection, security and human rights.

The opening introductory session was chaired by Brazilian Minister of Culture and musician Gilberto Gil who was joined by UN Under Secretary Sha Zukang.

Mr Zukang delivered a statement by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon who praised the event

He said: "We embrace the opportunity to provide, through this forum, a platform that helps to ensure the internet's global reach.

"The forum can develop a common understanding of how we can maximize the opportunity the internet offers."

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According to the UN Secretary General's statement there are an estimated one billion internet users but some five billion still do not have access "to this empowering tool".

Mr Kummer passed on the words of one speaker who had said: "if people talked about one billion users 10 years ago that would have sounded unthinkable... but now we are already talking about the second billion".

Access inevitably brings in the subject of expansion into developing countries, which has both logistical and financial implications. Jacquelyn Ruff, who works for Verizon communications in the US, stressed the need for regulatory barriers to be lifted and the introduction of price caps, to ensure cost did not put access out of reach of people.

Brazil is one country that is making good progress in terms of connecting citizens to the internet and has 39 million users.

Helio Costa, minister of communications in the country, stressed the need for local focus.

He said Brazil had enjoyed success through financing a low cost computers scheme in 2005.

He added: "In the next few years I want to have every city in Brazil connected by broadband. [The] internet belongs to the people of the world."

I moderated the session on access. It's a complicated and wide ranging area.
BBC News' Richard Sambrook

Rajesh Bansal, of Nokia Siemans in India, stressed that improving access meant "communicating more with local people".

He said that companies in the past had underestimated the intelligence and creativity of local communities, which had often come up with better and cheaper solutions for internet use.

Many at the form felt "access for all" should mean not just across country borders but also within different groups, including providing easy access for those with disabilities.

Monthian Buntan from Thailand's Association for the Blind said that the internet "should be a caring, peaceful and barrier-free place". The question was also raised of "why should blind people pay more".

Accessibility is also influenced by language and by possible language constraints.

One African delegate said the forum had to "make a collective commitment to the next generation of internet users".
Those who may expect a repeat of the controversial statements made by Chinese officials in IGF last year in Athens would be disappointed.
Hong Kong blogger Charles Mok

There were concerns from many at the forum that local languages would be side-stepped on the internet in favour of a more homogeneous culture.

UNESCO is currently working with the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) and Icann (Internal Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the overseers of the net, towards an agreement on universal standards on languages and a multi-lingual internet.

"ITU is fully committed to assist its membership in promoting the diversity of language scripts for domain names," said Dr Hamadoun Touré, secretary general of ITU.

He went on to encourage "advancement across language barriers".

Domain Names, which are currently limited to characters from the Latin or Roman scripts, are seen as an important element in enabling the multilingualisation of the internet. They are, in effect, the postal addresses of the net and let people type in the names of websites rather than the numerical address of each site.

Icann is currently testing domain names which are using alphabets of a range of languages, including Arabic.

"Icann is in the midst of the largest ever evaluation of international domain names at the top level," said Dr Paul Twomey, head of the organisation.

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