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Last Updated: Friday, 5 December, 2003, 14:03 GMT
Making a difference for the 'digitally poor'
Technology analyst Bill Thompson hopes that the UN's summit on the information society will go some way to closing global digital gaps.

Computer users in Bangladesh
It is time to make a fair 'information society'
Flights to Geneva will be pretty busy next week as politicians, diplomats, experts, NGOs, activists and, of course, journalists head off to the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society.

Organised by the International Telecommunication Union, the body within the UN system responsible for telecoms networks and services, the summit will try to lay down the principles which should underpin the development of the information society.

It will also try to agree a plan of action to reduce the divisions that currently exist between rich and poor countries in their access to and use of information and communications technologies.

I will be there, reporting for BBC's World Service programme Go Digital and for openDemocracy.net, as well as adding to the chatter on various weblogs.

Level heads

We certainly need this summit.

The difference in the use of information and communications technologies between different countries, or even between different groups within a country, can be enormous.

Far too many people still have no way to use even basic computers, never mind the internet and the services it provides.

Here in the UK we have all the advantages, and yet the divisions in internet use between rich and poor, between north and south and between city and country dwellers are enormous.

Projects like Citizens Online are working hard to overcome them, but there is still much to do, and the problems are far greater elsewhere.

Bill Thompson
It will always be more important to give people clean water, good food and adequate shelter. But it is not just rhetoric to talk about the information society - it exists
Without a serious, level-headed discussion and an agreement on the steps to be taken to remove the digital divide, we will find that the inequalities of the industrial age continue to distort the world in the information age, and that is unacceptable.

But as you might expect, I do not believe we should leave this to the free market to sort out.

Government intervention is required, and the summit is the right place to begin.

So the mere fact that it is taking place, bringing thousands of people together in Geneva for three days, is a good thing.

It has focused attention on the idea of the information society, revitalised interest in the digital divide and given campaigning groups and non-governmental organisations a place to start their work.

It would be wonderful if the government leaders managed to sit down and agree on some of the fundamental issues, like whether the rich nations should provide money and computers to the poorer ones, or whether freedom of speech online should be guaranteed.

But the political obstacles to this seem too great to be overcome.

If, as I expect, the final declaration is watered down and the plan of action commits no real money and few resources, we should not just give up.

The Geneva meeting is not the end of the process.

Next week's meeting is officially billed as the "first phase" of the summit and the second phase will take place in Tunis in November 2005.

Global politics is a slow, tortuous process.

If we are going to get "a clear statement of political will and a concrete plan of action for achieving the goals of the Information Society, while fully reflecting all the different interests at stake," it is not going to happen overnight.

No giving up

It is somewhat ironic, but the last time I was in Geneva was nearly 10 years ago, when I attended the first international World Wide Web Conference.

We heard Tim Berners-Lee, the web's inventor, talk about the way it could bring down the barriers between people and between different cultures.

That can only begin to happen if everyone can actually use the technology, and although we have gone from 10 million net users in 1993 to nearly 600 million today, we are still a long way from getting the web to everyone who could benefit from it.

I would like to think that the thousands of people heading to WSIS could make a difference, and that if the formal declaration fails to deliver, then the ripples from the meetings, discussions, arguments and speeches will spread outward and start to change the way that we think about digital technology.

It will always be more important to give people clean water, good food and adequate shelter.

But it is not just rhetoric to talk about the information society - it exists.

And we need to ensure that the benefits it brings, in terms of quality of lives, sustainable development and equality of opportunity, are not stolen from the poorest of the world by those of us who benefited most from the industrial age.

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


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