G8 leaders agree to more talks on digital divide

After three days of talks and months of preparation, leaders of the world’s seven largest economic powers plus Russia failed to agree on any specific action to bridge the growing technological divide between the world’s richest and poorest nations.

At the conclusion of the G8 Summit on the Japanese island of Okinawa, leaders made a commitment to further study the issue and take it up again at their next meeting, in a year’s time in Italy.

Going into the summit, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori had made clear his wishes to make information technology – specifically the so-called digital divide, the gap between those who have access to information technology and those who don’t – one of the key themes of the summit. Earlier last month, he held a series of meetings on the subject in Tokyo with business leaders from the world’s largest companies and the world’s poorest nations, all of which stressed the importance of a clear plan to tackle the problem and the need for the Group of Eight (G8) nations to take the lead. The G8 comprises U.S., U.K., Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Russia.

“As the G8 chair, I took up information technology, one of the most powerful forces that will shake up the 21st century, as one of the main items on the agenda,” Mori said during a televised press conference at the conclusion of the summit.

“What do we need to do so that everyone will be able to enjoy the maximum benefit of information technology? How can we best overcome the digital divide between the developing and developed worlds? These were the main points of the discussions on IT, and as a result we came up with the Okinawa Charter that calls on the entire world to participate, and I believe this Okinawa Charter will play an important role in the future development of the world economy,” Mori said.

The Charter outlines the G8’s aims and ambitions for conquering the digital divide and establishing other policies that will help the growth of electronic commerce and the Internet. However, it has little in terms of concrete plans and resolutions.

On the digital divide, the leaders resolved to establish a study group, the digital opportunity task force, called dot-force, to look into the issue. The task force will bring in other international organizations, United Nations agencies and other groups, shifting some of the work away from the G8 nations, and plans to have a report ready in time for the next G8 summit – in Genoa, Italy, in one year.

The outcome is a far cry from the Japanese government’s specific plan, that it will implement outside of the G8 framework, to commit US$15 billion over the next five years to bridge the international digital divide.

Speaking to journalists last week just before presenting a report to Mori, Klaus Schwab, founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum, stressed the need to pledge funds and make a real commitment, “We hope that G8 leaders will make commitments, in the interests of humankind, which are not only commitments in words, but commitments in action,” he said. “And commitments in action mean commitments in resources.”

Elsewhere in the charter, the leaders recognized the need for their governments to take the lead in establishing a regulatory, investment and policy framework that allows the information society to grow without any impediments.

They agreed on the need to continue to promote competition, protect intellectual property rights, facilitate cross-border e-commerce through trade agreements, adopt a consistent approach to taxation of e-commerce, continue the practice of not imposing customs duties on electronic transmissions and develop an effective and meaningful privacy protection for consumers.