United Nations

The United Nations grapples with the idea of a global "information society"

Hailed as a major new direction for the United Nations, the World Summit on the Information Society focused not on a single issue area, but rather on emerging information and communications technologies that cut across many issues in the global arena.

GENEVA — Karanja Gakio saw early on that information and communications technologies held huge promise for development and advancement on his native continent of Africa.

In 1995, Mr. Gakio co-founded Africa Online, the first commercial Internet service provider in Kenya and a continuing Internet presence in eight African countries today. "We realized that this was a revolution that was going to happen whether or not we got involved, so we decided to jump in right at the beginning," he said.

Curiously, he said, some African governments initially tried to block their service. "They were scared of the Internet and email and what it might do," said Mr. Gakio. "They worried about competition with government-owned telephone companies, or about the transmission of information without their ability to monitor it."

"But that has all changed now," added Mr. Gakio. "Now Africans are worried they are going to be left out."

Mr. Gakio was among the thousands of Africans and other representatives from the developing world at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), a major United Nations conference on information and communications technologies held here 10-12 December 2003.

The Summit was hailed by participants and observers as a major new direction for the United Nations, inasmuch as it focused not on a single issue area, but rather on emerging technologies that cut across many issues in the global arena.

"This Summit is unique," said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in an opening address here. "Where most global conferences focus on global threats, this one will consider how best to use a new global asset."

Some 176 governments sent delegations, as did more than 481 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), some 98 businesses and corporations, and 631 media outlets. In all, more than 11,000 delegates participated in the WSIS, and some 30,000 people visited an accompanying exhibition, known as the ICT4D (Information and Communications Technologies for Development) Platform.

At the Summit, governments adopted a major new Declaration of Principles and an accompanying Plan of Action. While paying homage to the principles established in the great UN global conferences of the 1990s, such as the "universality, indivisibility, interdependence and interrelation of all human rights" and the "achievement of sustainable development," the Declaration also sought to establish a new vision for a global "information society" that is "people-centered, inclusive and development-oriented."

"We recognize that education, knowledge, information and communication are at the core of human progress, endeavour and well-being," states the Declaration. "Further, Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have an immense impact on virtually all aspects of our lives. The rapid progress of these technologies opens completely new opportunities to attain higher levels of development.

"The capacity of these technologies to reduce many traditional obstacles, especially those of time and distance, for the first time in history makes it possible to use the potential of these technologies for the benefit of millions of people in all corners of the world."

Used properly, the Declaration said, these new technologies "can be a powerful instrument, increasing productivity, generating economic growth, job creation and employability and improving the quality of life of all."

However — and this point summarizes perhaps the main reason for holding the Summit — the Declaration also acknowledged that currently "the benefits of the information technology revolution are today unevenly distributed between the developed and developing countries and within societies."

The "Digital Divide"

This is the so-called "digital divide" and its implications and impact were hotly discussed, both at the Summit and in the preparatory meetings that led up to it.

"The digital divide is essentially a development disparity and a gap impeding the dialogue of civilizations," said Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in the Summit's opening session.

Zambia's minister of communications and transport, Bates Mamuyamba, said Africa was particularly affected by the digital divide. "We are struggling to provide for the basic needs of our people who are affected by poverty and social problems, such as HIV/AIDs, and underdevelopment," said Mr. Mamuyamba.

Mr. Mamuyamba indicated that the problem is social and structural. "Many of our people have never made a phone call despite being within easy walking distance of a telephone," he said. "Universal access to information and knowledge cannot be obtained without the building of the relevant technological infrastructure."

To close the divide, Mr. Mamuyamba and others called for the establishment of a "digital solidarity fund," whereby developed countries would pay into a special fund to finance infrastructure improvements in poor nations.

Some Western nations, however, said there was no need for a special fund for ICT, given the many other sources of international development assistance.

"We do not believe that a new international fund could tackle the real underlying problems," said Stephen Timms, minister of energy, e-commerce, and postal services in the United Kingdom. "It might indeed divert funds away from other areas of poverty reduction which developing countries have themselves identified as priorities."

In the end, the idea of such a fund was put off until the second session of the Summit, scheduled to be held in Tunisia in November 2005. (In a unique feature for a UN summit, the WSIS is split into two segments.)

Another unresolved issue, also put off until the Tunisian Summit session, concerned whether the United Nations should have more to say about how the Internet is governed. Currently, the Internet is managed by a loose network of non-profit corporations and boards. These various agencies set technical standards for the Internet and parcel out domain names. In terms of content, however, there is no governance over the Internet. At the Summit, some countries indicated they want more control.

"Measures should be taken to actively and effectively prevent the use of information technologies and resources for pornographic, violent and terrorist purposes as well as for criminal activities endangering national security so as to ensure the healthy development of information and networks," said Wang Zudong, minister of information industry for the People's Republic of China.

Other countries stressed freedom of expression. "We want the global information society to be based on universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms," said Sergio Marchi, Canada's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, in Canada's statement to the Summit. "Among those, freedom of opinion and freedom of expression are clearly fundamental and underlie the creation, communication, and use of information and knowledge."

Among other things, the Plan of Action adopted by governments at the Summit seeks to encourage governments, in partnership with the private sector and civil society, to connect villages, health centers, and educational institutions with ICTs. "The effective participation of governments and all stakeholders is vital in developing the Information Society, requiring cooperation and partnerships among all of them," states the Plan.

The Power of Information

John Gage, Chief Researcher for Sun Microsystems Laboratories, a major US computer manufacturer, said the WSIS was in many ways less contentious than other major UN conferences because it focused mainly on a set of technologies, rather than an issue area, and there was general agreement that those technologies could be important in solving a wide variety of problems.

"Everyone agrees on the fundamental power of information to transform society," said Dr. Gage, even if they have slightly different perspectives. "Businesses think about creating these powerful tools and getting paid for them; ministers think about using these powerful tools to transform health and education; and NGOs and civil society see these same tools as transforming the interaction of their citizens with their governments and with businesses."

Mr. Gakio, co-founder of Africa Online, likewise said ICT has a tremendous capacity for stimulating social change. "There is something different about it from other development tools," said Mr. Gakio, who is now director of Cyberplex Holdings, Ltd., in Gaborone, Botswana, an Internet consulting company. "It has a multiplier effect. And it can bring people together to create their own knowledge and do their own research."

Mr. Gakio was present at the WSIS as part of the Bahá'í International Community's delegation to the Summit. He, along with several other Bahá'ís from around the world with expertise in ICT issues, came to showcase the possibilities for inclusiveness when ICTs are properly used at the global level, said Bahiyyih Chaffers, a permanent representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the United Nations.

"Our delegation was composed of people who are both highly regarded experts in information and communication technologies — and active members of a religious community that promotes world citizenship," said Ms. Chaffers.

She noted that in addition to Mr. Gakio, the Bahá'í delegation was composed of a top-ranked entrepreneur and Internet consultant from Singapore and a vice-president with CISCO Systems who is of Native American origin.

"Bahá'ís believe that the emergence of a global information society is merely one aspect of the inevitable coming together of humanity in the construction of a just and peaceful global civilization," said Ms. Chaffers.

"We see information and communication technologies as an important mechanism for communication and consultation among all peoples, groups and governments, especially at the global level," said Ms. Chaffers.

Other Bahá'í groups and organizations also participated in the Summit.

The European Bahá'í Business Forum (EBBF), for example, sponsored a workshop at the Summit titled "Toward a Knowledge-based, Sustainable World Information Society: The Role of Good Governance and Business." It featured a panel composed of Dr. Augusto Lopez-Claro, chief economist and director of the World Competitiveness Program of the World Economic Forum; Dr. Arthur Lyon-Dahl, president of the International Environment Forum and a former senior advisor to the United Nations Environment Programme; and Dr. Ramin Khadem, chief financial officer of Immarsat, London.