The Information Society - An Opportunity for Prosperity and Peace
The first preparatory meeting for the World Summit on the Information
Society began on an energetic and optimistic note. There was broad
agreement on its focus as stated by Mr Utsumi, Secretary-General
of the ITU. He told more than 800 delegates from 133 countries gathered
at the Geneva International Conference Centre that "now is
the time to reflect on the tremendous impact that information and
communication technologies have on economic, social and political
activities and on our everyday individual life. It is time for world
leaders to shape the right direction of the Information Society
and create a more just, prosperous and peaceful world."
Mr Utsumi cautioned that while the transformation to the Information
Society will be every bit as profound as the movement from agrarian
to industrial societies, that as in the past, such changes have
led to winners and losers. Some countries have prospered while others
have fallen behind. "We must not make the same mistakes for
the coming information society. We must bring the benefits of those
technologies to every citizen of the world." To do so, he added,
we must engage the understanding of political leaders and establish
a global strategy to create a win-win situation. "This is the
objective of the World Summit on the Information Society."
In order for the Summit to be milestone in the Information Society,
Mr Utsumi stated, "it must be a true meeting of minds, bringing
together all stakeholders from the developed and developing world.
It must have a common understanding of the Information Society and
a concrete action plan."
He reminded the delegates that the Preparatory Committee is mandated
to create an opportunity for all shareholders to discuss all relevant
issues and reach a common understanding. "Your task is not
to make detailed procedures, but rather to prepare a favourable
environment and proposals for heads of state to be able to reach
an agreement, which must be implemented by all the stakeholders."
WSIS - not just another Summit
In his address to the opening, State Secretary Marc Furrer, representing
the Swiss Government, laid to rest any questions as to "Why
another Summit?" He gave three reasons to support the need
for a Summit on the Information Society. First, he said that the
only through a Summit of all the stakeholders "will we be able
to find solutions". Solutions, he said, need to be "politically
relevant, globally implemented and suitable for the civil society
and the private sector." He also noted that this Summit was
unique in that it will be held in two phases - the first in Geneva
in December of 2003 and the second in Tunisia in 2005. Finally,
this will be the first time that together we will look at Information
and Communication Technologies (ICTs), which "have more and
more influence on our lives", and as a result government, civil
society and the private sector must work together to ensure success.
Mr Furrer went on to stress that Governments and International Organizations
will not be able to achieve any tangible results without the active
participation of the other stakeholders and he attached particular
importance to the role of Civil Society. "In the final analysis,
it is the Civil Society - citizens, industry, consumers and academics
- who apply ICT, be that as users, consumers or producers."
He concluded by reminding the delegates "we have come together
to find substantial solutions. Real solutions. We have to overcome
political obstacles. It is not the proceedings that count, it is
This need for a commitment to the preparatory process and willingness
to work together to achieve a vision and action plan for the Information
Society was stressed by Ambassador Ben Salem of Tunisia. It should
be noted that it was Tunisia who initially voiced the need for such
a Summit and that they looked forward to the opportunity to further
the important work begun today when the second phase convenes in
Tunisia in 2005.
Information - the not so 'equal' revolution
According to Mr Shashi Tharoor, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for
Communications and Public Information," one thing is already
clear. Dollar signs and GNP tables are no longer the only elements
dividing the haves and have-nots. The industrial revolution is passé;
we are living in the era of the information revolution." But
he went on to note that, "this is a revolution with lots of
liberté, some fraternité and no egalité."
Access to information is increasingly vital for prosperity and development
and no one disputes the fact that there are dramatic disparities
across the world. Nearly a third of the people in what the United
Nations calls the least developed countries will probably not survive
to their 40th birthday; nearly a billion people are illiterate;
well over a billion lack access to safe water and some 840 million
starve or face food shortages. "Yet all of these well-worn
facts do not represent the most striking global divide of today,
that of information inequality. The new poverty line is drawn this
side of the computer keyboard."
Mr Tharoor, representing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the opening
of the PREPCOM cited the Secretary-General who has said, "Knowledge
is power and information is liberating." There can be little
argument he said, that information and freedom go together. "The
information revolution is inconceivable without political democracy
and vice versa." He went on to note that there is widespread
recognition that in today's increasingly democratised world, restraints
on the flow of information undermine development. "The challenge
facing the world today is how to widen the reach of information
- how to make it available to people everywhere, whether they live
in the industrialized world or the developing." He concluded
by again citing Kofi Annan who once remarked that, 'what is so thrilling
about our time is that the privilege of information is now an instant
and globally accessible privilege.' Mr Tharoor then added that this
privilege is gradually being extended; but too many people in too
many countries can't afford it. "Perhaps this is the newest
challenge for the United Nations: to work to bring access to information,
and the empowerment it offers, to all the world's people. Only then
will egalité be brought into the Information Revolution."
The speeches of Messieurs Utsumi, Furrer and Tharoor are available on-line
at United Nations Radio. They can be accessed at www.unog.ch/News
A Social Divide Leads to a Digital Divide
The perspective of the Civil Society was represented by Mr. Daniel
Pimienta who reminded the delegates of the need to be wary of the
'rhetoric' associated with the issue. That too often we talk about
ICTs from only the perspective of access, whereas applications and
content are critical issues. He pointed out that simplistic schemes
or 'cookie cutter' approaches do not work in today's interconnected
world. He strongly advocated the need for 'democratic education'
that would especially benefit women and children in rural areas.
He concluded by saying that the "quality of participation will
determine the credibility of the Summit."
The 'Business' of WSIS
Maria Livanos Cattaui, Secretary General of the International Chamber
of Commerce (ICC) addressed the plenary on behalf of the private
sector. She stated that the ICC is coordinating a group of business
interlocutors in order to ensure its participation in the preparatory
process. She stressed the need for all stakeholders, specifically
business, to be actively involved throughout the process. Together
WSIS stakeholders could address critical issues such as infrastructure
development and the need to improve the regulatory and policy frameworks
in the developing world.
A 'First' WSIS President
Mr. Adama Samassekou, President of the African Academy of Languages
and formerly the Minister of Education in Mali, was elected the
President of the First Preparatory Committee meeting. Mr. Samassekou
told delegates that the time has come to turn the digital divide
into a digital opportunity.
A need for local voices in a global Information Society
Swiss Federal Counselor Moritz Leuenberger told the plenary "today
economic survival depends equally upon information and information
technology." He said that at the dawn of the third Millennium,
construction of wells and hospitals is no longer sufficient to fight
hunger and poverty, "the world needs a modern telecommunication
infrastructure." This he said is why we must do everything
possible to share the resource of 'information' equally throughout
Mr Leuenberger noted that it would be "illusory to think we
will find miracle solutions during the Summit, but we do hope to
avoid exporting the errors we have made as industrialized countries
to those countries which are still developing." A global Information
Society must be grounded in cultural pluralism and common values.
Information at the local level, traditional knowledge and cultural
communication are vitally important to the vision and action plan
the Preparatory Committee hopes to create.
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