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Summit to Search Ways to Narrow “Digital Divide”

World leaders are in Geneva for the World Summit on the Information Society, aimed to bridge the “digital divide” between rich and poor. But forging common ground in the face of sundry interests will prove difficult.

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Logging on -- U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in Geneva ahead of the World Summit on the Information Society.

60 heads of state, officials from 175 countries and another 10,000 representatives from civil society, media, business and technology gathered in Geneva on Wednesday for a three-day World Summit on the Information Society organized under a U.N. banner.

The aim is to discuss ways to bring poorer nations into the information age and speed up their economic development by improving access to mobile phone technology and the Internet.

Speaking on the eve of the summit, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Anan said the goal of the summit could be summed up in one word: "connections." Annan added that the role of the delegates was to help connect people to technology and to each other.

Anan’s opening address on Wednesday centered on how modern information technology could be used as a new tool to better living standards in poor nations.

"Where most global conferences focus on global threats, this one will consider how best to use a new global asset," he said. "From trade to telemedicine, from education to environmental protection, we have in our hands, on our desktops and in the skies above, the ability to improve standards of living for millions upon millions of people," he added.

Delegates will also address a host of other issues ranging from how to counter the spread of Spam and pornography on the Internet to press freedom and censorship.

Conflicting interests hinder unanimous agreement

But given the diverse organizations and nations participating in the summit, the meeting suffers from its share of problems.

Jeannette Schmitz, who represents civil groups in the German delegation underlined the difficulty of forging agreement in the face of conflicting interests. "The governments represent very different goals. That also has to do with the fact there are both democratic and non-democratic governments involved," she told DW-RADIO. "Even the non-governmental organizations aren’t in agreement over all the issues. What opinion they represent, depends on the specific area."

Rich and poor clash over financing infrastructure

One of the main hurdles ahead of the summit proved to be a growing divide between rich and poor nations on the question of who should pay for the development of information and communication technologies.

Poorer countries, particularly from Africa, had been pushing for the launch of a "Digital Solidarity Fund" to help finance the infrastructure they say is needed for them to catch up with the richer world. But the idea was opposed by industrialized nations.

The two sides finally settled on a compromise on the eve of the summit. Delegates agreeing to include provisions in the draft action plan, to be approved formally at the close of the summit, that a study would be conducted on the issue of finance before 2005.

Summit hijacked by western interests?

There are also fears that the summit could be steamrollered by the interests of Western industrialized nations, who are primarily looking at the private sector and the market economy when it comes to developing the Internet.

Ralf Bendrath of Germany’s Heinrich-Böll Foundation, who participated in preparatory conferences leading up to the Geneva summit, said, "our demands are clear, that this whole summit doesn’t just dissolve into a purely technology-oriented event, but rather deals with the question of how lives of people in the information society can be improved."

Bendrath also warned that the multinational telecommunication companies participating in the summit, should also keep their ambitions in check. "To an extent, industry is naturally important, to build infrastructure and operate it. But we are against an information society that’s organized as a purely profit-oriented information society," he said.

Freedom of the press a controversial issue

Press freedom has been another controversial issue at the summit, with developing nations and European states clashing over the wording of a general declaration on the role of the media. The growing reach of the Internet as a news medium has once again thrown the spotlight on press freedom.

But there is anger that many governments such as those of Zimbabwe, who are accused of clamping down on the media and restricting access to the Internet, are participating in the summit.

"Many of the principal barriers and obstacles to development of the Internet as a platform for free expression have been erected by the very governments who are in attendance," Timothy Balding, director general of the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers told Reuters.

But despite the obstacles throwing a pall over the progress of summit talks, delegates are hoping that they will work through the main points on the agenda by Friday and formally approve a concluding declaration of principles and action plan to smooth the way for the next summit in Tunisia in 2005.

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