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The advent of the Internet is considered by some to be as significant in its effect on society as that of the telephone or even the printing press. While it took the telephone nearly three-quarters of a century to reach 50 million users, the World Wide Web (WWW) achieved the same feat in only four years. In fact, from the Internet’s humble beginning in 1981, when it supported a mere 213 hosts, the individual computer systems used to connect to the Internet, and only a few thousand users, it had grown, by 1999, to over 56 million hosts with more than 190 million users.
These figures are certainly impressive, but a closer look reveals that there are great disparities in Internet access across geographic regions. Today, there are almost as many hosts in France as in all of Latin America and the Caribbean, and there are more hosts in Australia, Japan, and New Zealand than in all of the other countries in the Asia-Pacific region combined. Perhaps most telling, there are more hosts in New York than in all of Africa.
This year’s World Telecommunication Day highlights the emergence of this "digital divide." While people all over the world do access the Internet, Internet users still account for only five percent of the world’s population. Furthermore, eighty-five percent of all Internet users live in developed countries, where ninety percent of all Internet hosts are located.
The benefits of the Internet to developing nations are clear. It can allow businesses to sell goods and services directly to customers across national boundaries and facilitate the delivery of basic services, such as health care and education, that are unevenly distributed among the world’s population.
Yet, in order for developing countries to reap these benefits, there are some things we must first ensure. The content of the Internet must be available in many different languages, and not just a privileged few. All nations must have the requisite infrastructure, most notably telephone lines. The price of Internet access must be brought within the reach of all people.
Knowledge has long been synonymous with power, but with the advent of the Internet, access to knowledge is quickly becoming a requirement for power—whether social, political, or economic. In our increasingly interconnected world, we must work together to see that all people have access to the knowledge the Internet has to offer. On this day, let us commit ourselves to that task, and let us make our efforts a bridge that spans the "digital divide."
Kofi A. Annan
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