However, they put off a decision on whether to set up a special fund to finance the necessary infrastructure, for which African countries had lobbied hard.
The first World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva wound up three days of lofty speech-making by endorsing a declaration of principles and a 29-point action plan, completed after hard bargaining just hours before the gathering got under way.
The declaration committed them to using telecommunications technologies, such as the Worldwide Web and mobile phones, to boost economic growth and meet United Nations development targets for eradicating extreme hunger and poverty by 2015.
The main points of the two texts endorsed at the summit:
– to harness the potential of information and communication technology (ICT) to eradicate poverty and hunger as well as ensuring primary
education for all
– to reaffirm the basic right to freedom of opinion and expression
– to “facilitate meaningful participation by all” in protecting intellectual property while also encouraging knowledge sharing
– to launch a task force under UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to review the efficiency of funding mechanisms aimed at bridging the technology divide between rich and poor countries.
– to set up a working group again under Annan to study how the Internet should be governed.
– to ensure security in cyberspace on a national and international level
– to encourage “digital solidarity” whereby governments, civil society and private industry work together to bridge the global digital gap
– to promote the use of open source and free software to increase competition and access to users
“The declaration represents a sort of constitution for the Information Society which must contain a social dimension and foster development,” said Swiss President Pascal Couchepin, the country which hosted the UN-sponsored gathering.
Around 90% of the world population is not connected to the Internet, depriving them of a 21st century resource and digging a “digital divide” between rich and poor.
But richer states, notably Japan and the European Union, which generally did not send top government officials to Geneva, resisted calls for a “Solidarity Fund” to close the gap.
As a compromise, states agreed to study the issue further and report back before the follow-up summit in Tunis in 2005.
But it was not just the wealthy states that opposed rushing into new financing. Senior UN officials agreed it was better first to explore improved use of existing resources from the World Bank and other sources.
“It must take its place in line along with health and education. It has to be linked to investment in these areas otherwise it would be just a waste of public money,” said Mark Mallock Brown, head of the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
Also postponed was a showdown over Internet management, with developing countries such as Brazil pressing for a greater role for the United Nations or intergovernmental agencies in a business currently left to the private sector in rich states.
The liberal democracies won a tough battle in the preparation stage to have press freedom and the right of access to information enshrined in the summit documents.
“The right to freedom of opinion and expression is its (the declaration’s) essential foundation,” Couchepin said.