WSIS: Annan calls for summit of solutions for the digital divide

If the first World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva two years ago was one of vision, the second phase in Tunis, Tunisia, should be one of action. That was the key message in a speech given Wednesday by United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan at the opening of the Tunis summit.

“Our task here in Tunis is to move from diagnosis to deeds,” Annan said to crowded a room of delegates, journalists and other participants. “This summit must be a summit of solutions.”

The U.N. is sponsoring the three-day summit, which initially began with the goal of bridging the digital divide between developed and developing countries, but has since evolved into a heated political debate on the continued role of the U.S. in managing core components of the Internet.

The opportunities for people in developing countries to improve their lives and increase their knowledge are “immense,” Annan said. Doctors in remote areas have gained access to medical information on tropical diseases, while students have been able to tap into worldwide databases of books and research, he said.

The U.N. is ready to help member states and all stakeholders implement whatever decisions are taken at this summit, including Internet governance, according to Annan. “But let me be absolutely clear: The United Nations does not want to ‘take over,’ police or otherwise control the Internet,” the general secretary said.

Addressing the prickly issue of Internet governance, Annan said the U.S. “deserves our thanks for having developed the Internet and making it available to the world,” adding that “it has exercised its oversight responsibilities fairly and honorably.”

While noting the need to keep technical issues in the hands of technical people, the general secretary acknowledged the need “for more international participation in discussions of Internet governance issues.” The question, he said, is how to achieve this. “So let the discussions continue,” he said.

In another speech at the opening ceremony, Swiss President Samuel Schmid pointed to the need to finance infrastructure in the poorest areas of the world. “Half of the world’s population still doesn’t have a phone,” he said. “A quarter of the world population hasn’t even made a call.”

Schmid also noted that some members of the U.N. are imprisoning citizens for critical comments of their governments on the Internet. “Freedom of expression and content must remain key issues,” he said.

Craig Barret, chairman of the board at Intel Corp., warned in his speech that access to technology doesn’t automatically translate into higher ability and talent. He pointed to U.S. schoolchildren who have more access to computers than many in the world, but score poorly in learning tests. “Computers aren’t magic,” he said. “Teachers are magic.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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