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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 November 2005, 10:22 GMT
Essential test for UN net summit
By Jo Twist
BBC News technology reporter in Tunis

Kofi Annan
The UN net summit attracted more than 17,000 participants
Building a global information society that is fair, equitable, and accessible to everyone is a daunting challenge that is going to take years to achieve.

It certainly was not going to happen in just three days of discussions at this week's UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis, Tunisia.

Even if half of the world's population is online by 2015, who even knows that the web itself will look like, what kinds if speeds we will have, and even whether keyboards, monitors and grey boxes will exist outside of museums.

But the equalising force of a network which holds an unfathomable wealth of information, knowledge is something that should be as free and ubiquitous as the air we all share.

However, swathes of poorer nations still do not even have running water and electricity. Unesco figures suggest that 784.8 million adults over 15 cannot read or write, and just over two-thirds of those are women.

There are divides within the digital divide that jostle for priority in many countries.

The challenge is designing and making available technologies, not necessarily in the form of grey boxes, which can help everyone in the worlds take advantage of this vast cerebral network.

As the International Telecommunications Union secretary general Yoshio Utsumi put it in his closing remarks at WSIS, the internet is like a "living, breathing creature", still finding its feet.

It is toddling towards puberty, but there is still a long way highway ahead of it. And to many, it is not yet a "super" highway.

Technology is changing at such a rapid rate, that the scenery of the internet may look totally different in five years' time.

United front

For millions of digitally dispossessed global citizens who know what opportunities the net can offer, there is enormous frustration.

Yoshio Utsumi, ITU
The net is not just one internet controlled by one centre, regionalisation has already started and I suspect that in a few years, the scenery of the internet will be a quite different one
Yoshio Utsumi, ITU

This is most evident among young people who are envious of what fortunate digital citizens in the West enjoy.

There still remain vast disparities between developed and developing nations in the cost of connecting to the global net backbone.

In most cases speeds are far too slow and the there is a huge lack of culturally relevant content, let alone material that appears in native languages.

Efforts by non-governmental groups, the private sector, governments and charities are ensuring that projects to provide the infrastructure, both wired and wireless, the hardware and the knowledge are in place, and sustainable.

SchoolNet, the Shuttleworth Foundation, Nokia, and the Wikimedia Foundation are just some of the groups aiming to make a difference.

But while civil liberty and rights campaigners lobby the global community and world leaders, and mobilise the army of bloggers and netizens, developing countries are desperately in need of the basic equipment before they can even think of blogging.

And the UN net summit was marked by a lack of attention by the global mainstream media.

Speaking out

Although the information society is about people and what they do with technologies, there still remain critical technical issues that need to be tackled head on.

Much of the summit, the single biggest thing to happen to Tunisia in recent history, was dominated by whether the US should keep technical control of the net and freedom of speech on the net.

$100 laptop
One of the highlights was the debut of the MIT $100 laptop
The issue was resolved partially in a compromise solution to set up an international forum to look at issues such as cyber security issues.

China is already setting up its own Chinese net addresses, which are not provided by the US-based Icann group, creating, in effect a regionalised internet over which Chinese authorities have more control.

"The net is not just one internet controlled by one centre, regionalisation has already started and I suspect that in a few years, the scenery of the internet will be a quite different one," commented Mr Utsumi.

This worries many. They fear giving over this type of control at a government level compromises the net's legacy of liberal, loose, grass roots lifeblood that feeds on debate, diversity, opinion and opposition.

Those sitting in booths on the expo floor at the summit were probably more concerned with how they will be able to afford to keep the hardware they have worked so hard to get up-to-date..

Or how their country can take broadband to millions living in rural villages, or how to power the technologies in the first instance.

The four 'em's of e-learning, e-government, e-commerce, e-medicine are old hat to so many in the West. But they are still of paramount importance to developing nations who need the political pressure, and the international spotlight.

So too do the small local projects that have to rely on the likes of Microsoft and Intel's "corporate responsibility" programmes. Civic responsibility needs to have priorities.

Developing nations need a helping hand to join the richer nations online. But it remains to be seen if any of the talk at the UN summit materialises into political action to narrow the technology gap.

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