Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 7 March 2005

UN debate on the digital divide

The information society and the digital divide came in for scrutiny as more than a thousand policy makers and NGOs gathered at the United Nations in Geneva to prepare for a World Summit on the Information Society.  The key issues were internet governance, a digital solidarity fund, and mechanisms to implement the action plans.


A World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), organized by the United Nations, will be held this November in Tunisia. It will be an occasion to bring up the many issues that the information and communications technology (ICT) has raised.

In fact it will be the second such summit.  The first had been held in Geneva in December 2003.   The Tunisia meeting is known as the second phase of the WSIS.

On 23-27 February, many of the issues were given an airing at a meeting of the WSIS preparatory committee (Prepcom) held in Geneva.  It attracted more than a thousand policy makers and NGOs involved in the area of information and communications.

A major theme of WSIS is that there is still a “digital divide” in the world, with the developing countries being left behind in having or using ICT, and poor communities not enjoying the benefits.

To bridge this divide, there should be “digital solidarity”, where the rich countries help the developing world to have greater access to ICT, and where people everywhere will have better access to information and knowledge.

WSIS is thus focusing on the development aspects of the information society, and one of the slogans of this process has been “ICT4D” which stands for “information and communications technology for development.”

Why hold two Summits instead of one?   The Secretary-General of the International Telecommunications Union, Yoshio Utsumi (who is also secretary-general of the WSIS) said that the first phase of the Summit created the design for the information society (through its principles and plan of action).

The aim of the second phase is to create the “construction plan” based on the design.  In other words, the Tunis Summit in November will come up with a strategy and plan for implementing what had been decided on at the first Summit.

That sounds like a good idea since many plans just gather dust on the shelf.  But whether the “implementation plan for the action plan”  -- which is what the 2005 WSIS is aiming to produce – will lead to real action is of course the key question.

There are three major issues for WSIS to resolve – financial mechanisms to fund the programmes, the implementation mechanism, and internet governance.  These formed the main areas of the Geneva preparatory meeting.

On the financial issue, the most notable development had to do with the Digital Solidarity Fund (DSF).   The Prepcom chair, Ambassador Janis Karklins of Latvia, hailed a “decision” on to welcome the DSF as “a big step forward and will create positive dynamics.”

However, a close look shows that the DSF, whilst inspired by the WSIS, is not a multilateral fund, and it is purely voluntary in that donor countries are not committed to contribute.

In fact the DSF has already been set up, as an independent initiative led by the City of Geneva and the Senegal government, after the December 2003 first phase of WSIS.

Most observers were skeptical whether there would be significant amounts put into the fund.  On the other hand, a start has been made to mobilizing resources.

Most of the discussions on finance focused on how to improve the use of existing funds.  The text says that nsufficient attention has been paid to areas such as ICT capacity building programmes,  communications access and ICT connectivity in rural areas, regional networks, broadband capacity, integration of ICT in poverty reduction, the needs of small enterprises, and local government initiatives.

It suggests reducing international internet costs charged by backbone providers and creating regional ICT backbones, mitigating risks and costs for operators entering rural and low-income market segments, and debt relief measures.

Another issue discussed was the “implementation mechanism.”   The draft suggests that for each action line in the Geneva and Tunis Plans of Action, a team of stakeholders will work together to promote implementation. 

The action lines (listed in an annex) include ICT infrastructure, access to information, enabling environment, cultural diversity, ethical dimension of the information society, international cooperation, and ICT applications (e-government, e-business, e-learning, e-health, e-employment, e-environment, e-agriculture, e-science).

The real battle is over who will be made the coordinating body, which will control the follow-up implementation mechanism.   The main contenders are the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and an existing or new UN agency.  

The largest unresolved issue of the WSIS is internet governance.  Many (delegations and NGOs alike) consider this to be the Tunis Summit’s most important issue by far.   A task force on internet governance (set up by the UN Secretary General) presented an interim report at last week’s meeting, and there was a lengthy debate on it.

Developing countries are concerned that whilst the internet has developed into a vital instrument, the control over the system lies in a few private companies located in the industrialized countries, with governments having no say.

Issues raised include security (the spread of viruses, spam, cybercrime and so on), cost of using and access to the internet, control over internet domain names, and the location and control of root servers.  WSIS is expected to come up with proposals on resolving these are other internet related issues.

In July, the UN internet task force will present its final report, and this is likely to spark a worldwide debate.  In September, the next meeting of the Prepcom will spend most of its time on drafting the proposals for WSIS.

There is thus a good opportunity during the rest of this year for all those concerned with the internet to put forward their views on how the internet is being run, its effects, and how to improve the system of its governance.

There is a fairly interactive process for taking part in the work of the internet task force, as people around the world are invited to provide inputs.  The task force’s reports can be found at the WSIS site at

If last week’s Prepcom meeting was preoccupied with lengthy discussions on what was really not much of an issue (how to make better use of existing financial mechanisms), the next meeting promises to feature a heated debate on a genuinely important issue – whether to and how to share the governance of the internet.