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Action Needed On Cyberspace Equity

Kiwi Internet Expert Says Action Needed On Cyberspace Equity

A New Zealand Internet lawyer back from a top-level UNESCO forum in Paris says world-wide government action is needed to close the gaps between countries and cultures with easy access to the internet and those without.

Elizabeth Longworth is a member a prestigious international panel that’s been drafting recommendations to the UNESCO General Conference which aim to ensure universal access to cyberspace.

She says the United Nations system has a role to promote policies that ensure equitable public participation in the information society.

Ms Longworth says the driving force behind the new recommendations are articles from Universal Declaration of Human Rights concerning the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, and the right to share in scientific advancements. She says the United Nations Millenium Declaration also states that the public has the right to access to information.

“Although it’s just an ordinary little phrase ‘access to information’ – it’s capturing concepts of universal or global access irrespective of socioeconomic status and concepts of affordable access, equitable access”.

Ms Longworth says one of the group’s key areas of recommendation is the strengthening of telecommunications services in developing countries so that the Internet and other communications systems can operate effectively. Once such frameworks are in place people need to be able to use them. In countries with limited resources, communal access points like church halls or village schools could be set up and computers shared by all Internet users in the area.

Another important set of recommendations concern the promotion of multi-lingualism. Ms Longworth says this involves much more than asking how you participate fully in digital opportunities if you don’t speak English. At the Paris forum this issue was fiercely debated amongst people from smaller nations and minority cultures.

“What this meant to them was the preservation of their culture and their values and even the dissemination of what they stand for and who they are”. She says that instead of seeing the Internet as a threat to their culture, people can turn it into an opportunity to reach out and communicate with each other. She sees the Maori language web-sites being set up in New Zealand as an example of how this can be done effectively.

Ms Longworth says web access for all also means promoting search engines and web-browsers with multi-lingual capabilities as well as on-line automated translation services. She says co-operative efforts then need to be made to produce these at a nominal charge or for free.

Other issues canvassed in the recommendations include the tensions between intellectual property laws and promoting access to information which ought to be in the public domain, education policies, the commercialisation of scientific research and promotion of ethical standards.

Ms Longworth says the Draft Recommendations Concerning the Promotion and Use of Multi-lingualism and Universal Access to Cyberspace are being put forward to UNESCO’s General Conference. If they emerge in their current form, they will obligate member states to put them into action.

Elizabeth Longworth is an Auckland lawyer specialising in the implications of cyberspace technologies and information law. She has become involved in the international debate about the legal and ethical issues around the production and use of information on the net and has represented New Zealand at several UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) International Congresses on cyberspace issues.

Ms Longworth says UNESCO is the only global organisation focussing on the non-economic implications of the Internet.


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