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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 December, 2003, 15:59 GMT
Annan calls for even wider web

By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology editor in Geneva

UN secretary general Kofi Annan, AP
Annan: English is drowning regional voices
UN chief Kofi Annan has accused English-language websites of crowding out what he called "local voices".

Opening the first UN summit on the digital divide, the secretary general said much of the information on the web was not relevant to the real needs of people.

He said this "content divide" was one of the challenges facing political leaders, business delegates and community activists in Geneva for the conference

The three-day event comes after months of wrangling about how to bridge the digital divide between rich and poor nations.

Power of technology

More than 10,000 delegates from some 150 countries are in the Swiss city for summit.

Some 50 heads of state are attending, among them Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who is in town despite travel bans imposed by Switzerland, the US and the European Union.

Addressing delegates at the official opening ceremony, Mr Annan spoke of the need to harness the power of technology to improve the lives of millions.

"We are all familiar with extraordinary power of information communication technologies," he said.

"From trade to telemedicine, from education to the environment, we have in our hands, in our desktops, in the skies above, to improve the standards of living for millions of people on this planet."

He stressed that this required political will of world leaders, as well as the support of the business sector and community groups.

'Irrelevant sites'

The secretary general outlined some of the challenges ahead for the more than 12,000 delegates at the conference.

He singled out the use of English as the lingua franca of the internet.

"There is a content divide. Much of the information on the web is not relevant to the real needs of people," he said.

"Nearly 70% of sites are in English, at times crowding out local voices and needs."

The Geneva summit is intended to create the groundwork to overcome these sorts of issues.

But is has been marred by political differences over how to fund technology projects in developing countries, as well as over who should rule the internet.

African countries have failed to obtain a commitment from the richer nations on a special fund for technology projects.

Instead the issue has been put on the backburner until the second phase of the summit, due to be held in Tunisia in 2005.

Similarly, the divisive issue over who should administer the internet has also been put on hold.

The UN, through the International Telecommunication Union, is keen to take over from the semi-private Icann organisation.

To avoid a clash at the summit, the thorny issue has been given to a working group to look at new ways of running the internet and report back to the Tunisia summit.


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