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Last Updated: Monday, 15 December, 2003, 10:16 GMT
Nations wrestle with internet age

By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology editor in Geneva

A shift in how people see the internet took place in Geneva at the end of last week, though few may have noticed.

Women using the internet
The net is now seen as a global resource
For the first time, politicians, business representatives and development workers sat down at a global forum to wrestle with a subject few know much about and many fear.

At the World Summit on the Information Society, organised by the UN, some 170 countries endorsed what has been called the first constitution for the information age.

The documents reflect the growing awareness of leaders of the political, economic and social impact of the internet and other communication technologies.

In a sense, the internet can no longer be seen as the sole domain of technical experts. It has evolved into a global resource, with divisions emerging over how best to exploit it.

Question of support

The declaration of principles and action plan adopted at the summit set ambitious goals to ensure that more than half of the world has access to some form of electronic media by 2015.

You have the sense about this summit that is it a process. This is a baby that ain't learnt to walk yet, let alone reached middle age
Mark Malloch Brown, UNDP
But a question mark remains over the degree of genuine political support to use technology as a tool to improve life for billions of people

After all, only 40 heads of state - mainly from developing countries - showed up at the UN summit, with low level delegations from key states such as the US.

And exactly how to bring these digital resources within the reach of the 90% of the Earth's population currently offline proved too much for the summit.

Hard decisions such as how to bankroll technology projects in developing countries and who should be in charge of the net were deferred for two years.

'Pentiums or penicillin'

The outcome was hardly surprising. Getting 170 nations to agree on something as complex and diverse as the internet was virtually impossible.

But the lack of any practical assistance left many disappointed.

Plenary hall
The UN summit agreed on lofty principles
"The choice should not be between Pentiums or penicillin," said the Rwandan Minister for Energy and Telecommunications, Sam Nkusi.

"We want to reap the benefits of the internet and join the rest of the world. That is when we can truly be an information society, otherwise the digital divide will widen," he told the BBC.

"We could probably do more, yes," admitted the Swedish Minister for Development and Cooperation, Carin Jamtin.

"But how much and to what extent, I can't say," she added, neatly summarising one of the key issues left unresolved at the summit.

Crawling infant

For some, what mattered was the fact that the summit had taken place.

"The genesis of any of these summits is a bubbling under that needs to be addressed at something higher than the national level," said Mark Malloch Brown, the head of the United Nations Development Programme.

"But you have the sense about this summit that it is a process. This is a baby that ain't learnt to walk yet, let alone reached middle age."

Global politics is a slow moving beast, whereas technology speeds ahead, regardless of political considerations.

Whether the Geneva summit will be seen as a milestone in the evolution of the net depends on what happens between now and the next information society summit in Tunisia in 2005.


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