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Tunis Summit: action on technology for poor?

Opening Tunis Summit, Annan calls for action on technology for the poor

The time has come to move beyond broad discussions of the “digital divide” – the gap in communications technology between rich and poor – to outlining a specific plan to give people access to the technologies they need and the education to use them effectively, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan told a major world meeting in Tunisia on the subject today.

“The hurdle here is more political than financial. The costs of connectivity, computers and mobile telephones can be brought down,” he told the opening plenary of the second phase of the Tunis World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) meeting, which runs through 18 November.

“These assets – these bridges to a better life – can be made universally affordable and accessible. We must summon the will to do it,” he continued, saying the technologies provided opportunities for development and poverty reduction.

“Those opportunities are immense,” he said, noting that in Africa and other developing regions, the rapid spread of mobile telephones and wireless telecommunication has spurred entrepreneurship, and helped small businesses take root, particularly those run and owned by women.

In addition, he said doctors in remote areas have gained access to medical information on tropical diseases and students have been able to tap into world-wide databases of books and research. Early warning of natural disasters has improved, and relief workers have been able to provide quicker, better-coordinated relief.

“The same opportunities – and other, new ones – can be given to many more people in the developing world,” he said.

Mr. Annan also emphasized that freedom is the information society's “very lifeblood,” enabling citizens everywhere to benefit from knowledge, journalists to do their essential work, and citizens to hold government accountable. “Without openness, without the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers, the information revolution will stall, and the information society we hope to build will be stillborn,” he declared.

Refuting the myth that the UN wants to “take over” police or otherwise control the Internet, he reminded the session that the UN consists of its Member States and can only want what those States agree on. “And as I understand it, what we are all striving for is to protect and strengthen the Internet, and to ensure that its benefits are available to all.”

Affirming that the United States deserves thanks for having developed the Internet, making it available to the world and exercising its oversight responsibilities fairly, he said he believed most participants agreed that day-to-day management of the Internet must be left to technical institutions.

“But I think you also all acknowledge the need for more international participation in discussions of Internet governance issues. The question is how to achieve this. So let those discussions continue,” he said.

Prior to Mr. Annan’s statement, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia welcomed the participants to Tunis-Carthage, which he called the “ancient city of dialogue,” for the purpose of building a knowledge and communication society that will ensure a brighter future for all of humanity.

Making a strong plea for freedom of expression in all media, President Samuel Schmid of Switzerland also pointed to the need for technological infrastructure development, adequate training for new users and relevant content development.

The opening ceremonies also included addresses from Secretary-General Yoshio Utsumi of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and representatives of business and civil society.

In the afternoon plenary, other national, corporate and non-governmental leaders emphasized the need for international, regional and cross-sectoral cooperation to spread access to critical communications technologies. The focus on free speech for all communications media continued as well.

Mr. Annan, remarking on the intense debate over free expression and other human rights at the Summit at a press conference this afternoon, said: "when such a discussion takes place, it can only be beneficial to the society concerned and other societies around the world."

Meanwhile, on the sidelines of the Summit, Mr. Annan had a full schedule of bilateral meetings, along with a short trilateral meeting with President Abbas and Foreign Minister Shalom. He also met separately today with both, discussing the importance of holding Palestinian elections as scheduled and other Middle East matters, according to a UN spokesperson.

In addition, he met with Huang Ju, Executive Vice Premier of China, with whom he discussed avian influenza, the spokesperson said. With President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon, Mr. Annan conferred on matters concerning Lebanon, Syria and regional stability. Among his other scheduled meetings today are those with the Presidents of Algeria, Nigeria and Sudan.

Also at the Summit today, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, José Antonio Ocampo launched the Global Centre for Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Parliament, which seeks to empower legislatures by reinforcing their capacity to harness new technologies.

In Tunis as well, the parallel World Electronic Media Forum continued its examination of the role of the media in the digital age, with a discussion of cultural diversity and dialogue among civilizations.

The discussion at that meeting focussed on "North-South content imbalance," or the perceived problem that most media content comes from a few industrialized countries.

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