Tackling the World's Technology Gap

  • Share
  • Read Later
More than 11,000 heads of state, business leaders, technology experts, development gurus and do-gooders have gathered this week in Tunisia for a UN-sponsored meeting dubbed the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The second phase of a two-part meeting that began in Geneva just under two years ago, the Tunisia conference has some heady aims. The most controversial issue going into the summit was who should control the Internet, which is currently managed by the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a non-profit company set up by the U.S. Department of Commerce to oversee the use of domain names, addresses and country domain suffixes. Although technology firms such as Google, IBM and Microsoft testified that ICANN is doing a good job with no interference, ever, from the U.S. government, developing countries insisted that the Internet should be managed by a multinational body such as the UN. The issue was resolved on the first day of the summit by creating an Internet Governance Forum (IGF) made up of governments and civil society groups. Crucially, though, the new body will not have decision-making powers. Score one for Washington.

Internet governance is not the summit's only issue. For many poor countries the biggest question is how to help narrow the “digital gap” between rich countries and poor ones. According to the International Telecommunication Union, the 15 percent of the world population that lives in the industrialized world enjoy five times better access to fixed-line and mobile phone services, nine times better access to Internet services, and own 13 times more personal computers than the 85 percent living in poor and middle-ranking countries. The Geneva meeting set a goal of bringing half the world's population online by 2015; the Tunis meeting is expected to work out a plan of action for achieving that target. Perhaps the most novel innovation: The $100 wind-up lap-top introduced by MIT director Nicholas Negroponte, who plans to have millions in production within a year in order to facilitate computerized education for the some of the world's poorest children.

Despite the gap between rich and poor countries, the developing world has nonetheless seen a boom in access to some technologies over the past decade. In Africa, mobile phone subscriptions has risen from 15 million in 2000 to more than 80 million in 2004. Mobile phone coverage now extends from the continent's capitals to remote towns in such war-ravaged countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. But access to the Internet lags far behind. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, just 3.1% of Africans have access to the Internet, and less than 1% use broadband connections. In vast swathes of the continent, people simply have no access to electricity, let alone the means of communication and of accessing the information available to much of the rest of the world. Bringing those people into the information age will be a critical dimension of strategies to raise them out of poverty.