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Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Regulators map “universal access” route to information and communication technology
Telecommunication regulators from around the world delivered a powerful message to world leaders convening in Geneva for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The regulators identified a series of steps nations can take to bridge the digital divide. They called upon countries to open their information and communications technology (ICT) sectors to greater competition. They further identified the kinds of regulations and practices needed to promote universal access to ICT services.
The regulators from more than 80 countries met in Geneva on 8-9 December 2003 to participate in the 4th Annual Global Symposium for Regulators (GSR) hosted by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Participants included international organizations such as the European Commission, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, as well as academic and non-governmental organizations. Participants prepared a blueprint of what should be done to ensure that global access to the tools of communication is extended to all of humanity. The GSR Universal Access Best Practice Guidelines were delivered to the first World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva on 10-12 December.
World Summit on the Information Society
The World Summit on the Information Society closed on an optimistic note of consensus and commitment, but Yoshio Utsumi, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union and Summit cautioned that the meeting was only the start of a long and complex process.
“Telephones will not feed the poor, and computers will not replace textbooks. But ICTs can be used effectively as part of the toolbox for addressing global problems. The Summit’s successes now give us the necessary momentum to achieve this,” he said.
“Building the inclusive information society requires a multi-stakeholder approach. The challenges raised – in areas like Internet governance, access, investment, security, the development of applications, intellectual property rights and privacy – require a new commitment to work together if we are to realize the benefits of the information society.
“Seeing the fruits of today’s powerful knowledge-based tools in the most impoverished economies will be the true test of an engaged, empowered and egalitarian information society”, he added.
Over 54 Heads of State, Prime Ministers, Presidents, Vice-Presidents and 83 ministers and vice-ministers from 176 countries came together in Geneva on 10-12 December 2003 to endorse a Declaration of Principles – or a common vision of an information society’s values – and a Plan of Action which sets forth a road map to build on that vision and to bring the benefits of ICTs to underserved economies.
The Summit is the first multi-stakeholder global effort to share and shape the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) for a better world. But the Summit was groundbreaking in other ways too. It offered a genuine “venue of opportunity” in a unique meeting of leaders, policy-makers, ICT business people, voluntary and non-governmental organizations of every possible kind, and top-level thinkers and speakers. Alongside the three days of Plenary meetings and high-level roundtables, nearly 300 side events helped bring the dream of an inclusive information society one-step closer to becoming reality.
Partnership announcements included a US$400,000 grant by the US Government for ICT development in low-income countries. Cisco and ITU also signed a Memorandum of Understanding to open 20 more Internet Training Centres in developing countries. In addition, Hewlett-Packard will provide low-cost products that will help overcome the illiteracy barrier to ICT. Handwritten texts, for example, will be recognized for email transmission. Microsoft, working with UNDP, will provide a billion-dollar programme over five years to bring ICT skills to underserved communities.
One innovative initiative announced to bridge the digital divide is the Bhutan E-Post project. For faster, cheaper and more reliable communication to remote, mountainous areas of Bhutan, the Government of India will deliver e-post services to the Bhutanese Postal Service via a US$400,000 V-satellite network and solar panels power system. The partners include ITU, Bhutan Telecom and Post, Worldspace and Encore India. At the close of the Summit, the cities of Geneva and Lyon and the Government of Senegal announced contributions totalling about 1 million euros to fund information technology in developing countries. The contributions will represent the first three payments towards the Digital Solidarity Fund, the creation of which is to be considered by a UN working group for the Tunis phase.
The second phase of the Summit takes place in Tunis in 2005 and will measure ambitious goals set in Geneva. With WSIS phase I over, the hard work begins and hard work lies ahead in the two years before Tunis, to show that the information society is on the right path.
The overarching goal of the Summit has been to gain the will and commitment of policy-makers to make ICTs a top priority, and to bring together public and private sector players to forge an inclusive dialogue based on the interests of all. In these two respects, the Summit has been heralded a success.
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan told delegates “Technology has given birth to the information age. Now it is up to all of us to build an information society 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.”
Top Summit targets now remain to be achieved, including connecting all schools, villages, governments and hospitals, and bringing half the world’s population within ICT reach, by the year 2015.
The Summit has clearly identified national e-strategies as the key vehicle to meet the targets. Connecting public places, revising school curricula, extending the reach of TV and radio broadcasting services and fostering rich multilingual content are all recognized as needing strong national-level governmental commitments. To encourage and assist national and local governments in this work, the Summit also foresees the development of international statistical indicators to provide yardsticks of progress, exchanges of experience to help develop “best practice” models, and the fostering of public-private partnerships internationally in the interests of sustainable ICT development.
Collaboration across the complex information society chain – from the scientists that create powerful ICT tools, to the governments that foster a culture of investment and rule of law, to the businesses that build infrastructure and supply services, to the media that create and disseminate content and – above all –human society which ultimately employs such tools and shapes their use –lays the foundation for an inclusive knowledge-based world on which the riches of an information society can flourish.
The Summit’s most notable achievement was across-the-board consensus earned for a Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action wording around several contentious issues, and the spirit of cooperation that permeated the Summit.
Internet governance, and financing ICT investments in underserved economies were two of the issues which called for long negotiations. On the issue of Internet management, the involvement of all stakeholders and intergovernmental organizations to address both technical and public policy issues has been underscored although global Internet governance is set to be the subject of deeper talks up to Tunis in 2005. An open and inclusive working group will be set up on the topic, in order to review and make proposals for action by the 2005 Summit.
Similarly on the issue of financing for underserved economies, a task force will be established to undertake a review of existing ICT funding mechanisms and will also study the feasibility of an international voluntary Digital Solidarity Fund.
On the areas of intellectual property rights and the need for enabling environments, universal access policies, and multilingual, diverse and culturally appropriate content to speed ICT adoption and use – particularly in the world’s most underserved economies – government-level commitment to follow a set of common values and principles has been attained.
Although these achievements fuel hope and may stoke further collaboration, Mr Utsumi, together with many world leaders, appealed to all stakeholders keep the spirit of cooperation alive well beyond the two years to Tunis, and to back up universally agreed principles with concrete actions to spark more peace and prosperity across the planet.
“The realization of the Plan of Action is crucial to the long-term success of the Summit. We need imagination and creativity to develop projects and programmes that can really make a difference. We need commitment – on the part of governments, the private sector and civil society – to realistic targets and concrete actions. We need the mobilization of resources and investment,” he said.
“With the unique occasion of a World Summit, we have the chance to scale up our ambitions to the global level, which is equal to the size of the challenge. Let us not miss this opportunity.”