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Major Global Communications Conference Opens - 2003-12-10

Global leaders have opened a major conference aimed at providing poor countries with the information and communication technologies they need to boost their development and economic prospects. Representatives from 170 countries are expected to adopt a plan of action giving the developing world greater access to the new technologies.

Participants agree that steps must be taken to bridge the so-called digital divide, the gap in computer use between rich and poor countries. They have come up with a document, which they believe will move toward achieving this end.

But, as Swiss President Pascal Couchepin said, talk is cheap and unless political leaders follow through on their promises, little will be accomplished. "It is not enough to simply set forth objectives. We must attain these goals. But if the rich countries do not keep their promises, they will unfortunately plunge poor countries into despair," he said.

In one of its biggest gatherings ever, the U.N. brought together some 60 heads of state and 12,000 delegates from governments, the private sector and non-government organizations.

One main objective of this summit is to draw up an action plan for the Internet. Questions, such as how to close the digital divide between the rich and poor countries, how to supervise the Internet and how to deal with issues such as pornography are among the most divisive.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says technologies are available to improve the standard of living for millions of people. But he notes an open, inclusive information society that benefits all people will not emerge without sustained commitment and investment.

He added it is up to government and business leaders to make this happen. "We also look to civil society groups, in particular for their rich knowledge of hopes and concerns at the local level, among communities that are eager to join in the global exchange of ideas and information, but may also feel their identities are threatened by a pre-packaged global culture," he said.

Kicki Nordstrom, who is president of the World Blind Union, told the opening session she represents millions of people with disabilities whose needs are often not met because information and communication technologies are rarely designed for them. "We have come to Geneva with a genuine hope that the real inclusive information society should do better in the future than we have faced up to now," she said.

Speaking for the business community, the chairman of the Board of Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications, Mohammad Omran, put the summit on notice that the private sector must continue to have leadership of the management of the Internet without government intervention.