The World Summit on the Information Society has set itself ambitious goals for the world's wired future. The challenge will be to make it happen, and for that, far greater emphasis needs to be given to ensuring that business can play its full part.
Maria Livanos Cattaui
Coordinating Committee of Business Interlocutors
Much was made in the long run-up to the summit of the need to involve all stakeholders. Business representatives are among the 2,000 observers taking part.
They are members of a Coordinating Committee of Business Interlocutors, a group of company executives and business organizations spearheaded by the International Chamber of Commerce.
Strong business input is clearly in the interest of a successful WSIS. After all, it is business enterprise that has been largely responsible for making information and communications technology an essential part of the fabric of life in the 21st century.
But at the time of writing, business is still waiting for promises to be met about placing business concerns at the forefront.
Need for investment
While business is asked to devote resources to the WSIS objectives, it was excluded from aspects of the preparatory work, along with other non-government stakeholders.
Nobody contests that the summit itself is and must remain an intergovernmental process. But if the United Nations wants chief executives of leading companies to be partners in implementing the plan of action, it should involve business more directly in shaping it.
In the tradition of UN summits, the proposed Action Plan is filled with high hopes and specific targets for spreading the boon of information and communications technologies to the ends of the earth.
Fulfilling those targets, or even significant progress towards them, will constitute a great leap forward for world economic integration.
The internet, the personal computer, fibre-optic cables and the communications satellite will be the instruments of a revolution encompassing the globe, far more radical than the industrial revolution in the 19th century.
You do not have to be a futurologist to realize that much more besides will be required to turn rhetoric into reality: investment on a massive scale, infrastructure development, and penetration of primary education to the most remote and deprived regions. After all, to use a computer effectively, you first have to know how to read.
For its part, business is seeking a clear commitment to creating an environment that is conducive to investment, both local and foreign direct investment.
Business executives are well aware that companies will shy away from committing shareholders' money to projects in developing countries if they view the investment climate as hostile.
Business resolutely supports maintaining the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) and other entities, in which the private sector already works directly with its partners.
It sees no good reason why responsibility for managing the internet domain name system should be transferred to a governmental organisation.
Without full and equal involvement for all stakeholders in its technical coordination, there is a real risk that the internet will degrade and fail to reach its full potential as a global communications and business medium.
Private sector technical leadership of the internet works well, and is essential to its stability, predictability and development.
There has been progress in other important areas. The CCBI has noted with satisfaction a move towards greater pragmatism on several fronts, and hopes that the trend will continue at the summit.
This is reflected in the approach to spam, privacy, security, intellectual property rights, good governance, an enabling environment, pro-competitive principles and the rule of law.
As proposals for WSIS are revised and debated, rejected and expanded, as the clamour of often conflicting interest groups in defence of their varied agendas reaches a crescendo, a fundamental reality cannot be ignored: Only the private sector can deliver the information society on any significant scale.
A World Bank representative at one of the preliminary WSIS meetings calculated that for every dollar the Bank puts into ICT related development initiatives, business invests three times as much.
A good piece of advice for the governments attending WSIS would be: Do not get lost in rhetoric and fanciful ambitions. Keep your feet on the ground and concentrate on what is possible.
And above all, remember that people are at the heart of the information society. It depends on education and training to provide them with the necessary skills for them to participate.
A healthy sense of realism will greatly improve the chances of success for WSIS.
Maria Livanos Cattaui is the chair of the lobby group representing the private sector, the Coordinating Committee of Business Interlocutors, at the WSIS.