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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 December, 2003, 13:37 GMT
Rifts mar digital divide summit

By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology editor

Political wrangling is threatening to derail the first United Nations summit aimed at bridging the digital divide.

Internet cafe in Brazil
Net cafes are one way of going online in developing nations
The aim of the World Summit on the Information Society is to come up with a global plan to ensure everyone has access to information and communications technologies.

With the summit due to kick off on 10 December, last ditch efforts are continuing to reach agreement on key issues such as the role of the media in the digital age and who should run the internet.

Groups representing some of the world's poorest people fear that the talks will result in a bland declaration with no real political or funding commitments.

Digital funds

The World Summit on the Information Society, (WSIS), was first proposed in 1998, as the UN sees technology as a must for developing nations to help them educate citizens, make them healthier and escape poverty.

The first phase is due to be held in Geneva between 10-12 December, marking the culmination of months of detailed planning and preparatory meetings.

But as world leaders and thousands of delegates from hundreds of organisations and community groups head for the Swiss city, there are still big differences on how to bridge the digital divide between rich and poor countries.

Township in South Africa
Is the summit losing sight of helping the world's poorest?
One of the main obstacles is over whether rich countries should provide funds to help poorer ones to get more computers and install networks.

The African countries, led by Senegal, have been championing the idea of a "digital solidarity fund", run by the UN to provide money for technology projects in the developing world.

Europe, Japan and the US are suspicious about the notion of yet another UN body, preferring instead to channel aid for such projects through existing development schemes.

Instead the EU has talked about what it calls a "digital solidarity agenda", dropping any mention of funding.

Swiss Communications Minister Mark Furrer, the chief negotiator on the declaration, has hinted that the question of funding may be left to be sorted out after the summit.

But there are suggestions of progress on one of the other main stumbling blocks, the questions of media freedom.

Countries like China, Egypt and Vietnam are reluctant to see the right to freedom of expression enshrined in the summit declaration, whereas the US and the EU see free speech as a fundamental principle of the internet.

As the clock ticks towards the summit, the Swiss minister has suggested that a compromise may be found to incorporate human rights and press freedom.

Net rule

Agreement on the thorny issue of who should run the internet could be much harder to reach.

We now have the feeling that there is no political will to agree on a common vision
Civil Society
Currently the net is managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, (Icann), a semi-private body created by the US Government in 1998.

It oversees major domain names such as .com and .net, as well as helping set the technical standards for how the net operates.

Developing nations such as Brazil and China, are pushing for the United Nations to have a greater say over regulation of the internet.

Western countries, such as the US, the business lobby and others are opposed to the idea of handing over responsibility for how the net works to a UN body.

They fear that this could give more power to governments and politicise technical decisions, which could affect the free flow of information.

Groups representing social movements, trade unions and aid bodies say the political squabbles are diverting attention from the original aims of the summit - giving a helping hand to the world's poorest.

"If the governments want to agree, they can agree in five minutes," said a statement by the non-government groups, represented under the banner of Civil Society.

"We now have the feeling that there is no political will to agree on a common vision."


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