Microsoft opens digital divide conference in Beijing

Reducing the digital divide through “integration” is the theme of a two-day Microsoft Corp. conference in Beijing that kicked off Wednesday morning.

The Microsoft Government Leaders Forum Asia opened with calls to reduce economic inequalities among nations through the use of technology, under the theme of “Innovation, Integration and Inclusion for Sustained Growth.” “Integration” is being used in place of the more loaded phrase “globalization,” which for some recalls the anti-globalization protests at the World Economic Forum in Seattle in 1999, along with the idea of manufacturing jobs being shifted from developed countries to developing regions. The term refers to the great inclusion of nations and people in global trade and economic development.

In a morning keynote, former Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and former New Zealand Prime Minister Mike Moore pointed to online government services as a way of closing the digital divide. “By putting all these services online, the poor may access these services their governments provide.” He gave the example of public access kiosks in rural areas of India, that allow utility bills to be paid online, freeing up people from otherwise having to wait in line and miss work.

He also said that technology by itself is not enough. The digital divide was created by people and needs to be solved by people through government policy and economic competition. “Technology is morally indifferent. It is not ideological,” said Moore, a popular figure in China, because he served as the WTO’s Director General during China’s accession to the body in 2001.

Dr. Ashok Jhunjhunwala of the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai echoed Moore’s sentiments, pointing to public Internet kiosks that allow people without telecom access to use online services. However, he emphasized that policies to support such programs must be in place for them to be effective. “We must never forget that ICT [information and communications technology] is only a tool,” he said.

Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates will close the confab Thursday afternoon with an announcement about its Unlimited Potential program to increase access to software in developing countries. That announcement will also be attended by Prof. Muhammad Yunus, winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in microfinance in Bangladesh.

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