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 Monday, 1 July 2002

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 the substance."

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

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 the world.

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.

For media information concerning the second phase of the Summit, click here

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