Information society: Promise and risks

Spotlight on Information Society

Switzerland is hosting the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva from 10–12 December 2003 and is committed to making this summit work. But what is it all about? Will it be yet another summit with political statements and resolutions of limited relevance or will it really make a difference?

Raising political awareness, improving use of information and communications technology, and bridging the digital divide: these are the basic aims of the Summit on the Information Society. Here we go again, you may say, for no doubt you have heard all of this before. And you would be right, the digital divide has been discussed for years, but are we any nearer to closing it? So what can a summit achieve?

There are several objectives, in fact. First, there is the process, which many dismiss as being just details, but which will have a strong effect on the result. Right from the beginning, even before the decision to hold the summit was taken at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 1998, the WSIS was conceived as a very different kind of summit. It would be an open process that involved not just world leaders, but all stakeholders. The actual negotiations and the decision-making remain the prerogative of governments, but stakeholders, such as businesses and civil society organisations, have been given the opportunity from the outset of interacting with government representatives and so maximising their decision-shaping role. This is a new model and future major UN conferences may well be based on it.

But will the government-stakeholder summit deliver concrete results? That is up to the parties, and will depend on their sticking to feasible goals. There is a common understanding that information technologies offer enormous potential and that the international community cannot afford to waste any more time in seizing the opportunities they present. The global economy increasingly relies on digitalised knowledge, information and communication. This is the reality.

Yet, many countries and billions of people are still adrift from this reality and their access must be improved. Telecommunications and technology markets can help in unpredictable ways. Five or six years ago, there was already concern that developing countries would be left behind in the information age. But back then, estimates about the investment needed to close the gap might have been higher than they are today, thanks to innovation and falling technology prices. Many poorer countries have taken the opportunity of leapfrogging traditional stages in communications by adopting mobile telephony for instance; thanks to the mobile phone, in sub-Saharan Africa twice as many people have been given access to the telephone than in all the decades of terrestrial cable telecommunications combined.

Technology and markets are the basis to build on, but governments have much to do. In fact, the world summit is not about technology per se. Nor are ICTs an end in themselves, but a means towards reaching broader policy objectives, like improving the everyday lives of millions of people, fighting poverty and contributing towards the Millennium Development Goals.

Digital divides exist on many levels. Though first and foremost a North-South issue, there are also divides within every society, with a real danger that new technologies will strengthen power elites and isolate vulnerable people further, from the elderly to the disabled. Avoiding the development of a two-speed society is a major challenge for all governments, even in advanced countries. And while technology can deepen divides, so it can provide the means to narrowing them.

The summit is supposed to agree on a common vision of what kind of information society we want. But as it is the first time the UN is addressing questions related to the information society, it is not surprising that controversies have come to the fore. They include very specific issues, such as governance of the Internet, but also more general issues about globalisation and culture. Some see technology as an opportunity, others as a threat. Some want it to help build an open, global society, others see it as a way of exercising greater authority.

It goes without saying that democracies subscribe to the first vision. The Declaration of Principles, which will be the main political outcome of the summit, should reaffirm fundamental democratic rights and freedoms, such as the right to privacy and to freedom of opinion and expression, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A declaration without this vision would not be worth the paper it is printed on (nor the web site).


But governments and people also see the security potential of ICT. Indeed, these political issues about rights are closely linked to the security of networks. A tendency to be avoided is to exploit “insecurity” as a pretext to give carte blanche to governments to clamp down on abuse and so harm the growth of the system. There will be a need to strike a fair balance, and while the duty of governments to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of their citizens is foremost, the parameters of that duty are for citizens, not governments, to decide.

Concern has been expressed in several countries, rich and poor, that governments see ICT as a means to control their citizens rather than to empower them. There seems little doubt that technology could be abused in this way, including to filter and control access to information. And in our time of international instability, any tools to improve national security will be looked at with interest. But to turn this into an Orwellian vision may be overpessimistic.

Throughout history, governments have never been able to control technological progress. Is there really any reason why information and communication technology should be different? True, there are concerns about how innovations in the pipeline might be used, like scanning individuals’ DNA for official records, or e-profiling. But technology is the means, not the end, and free democracies will continue to adapt their laws to protect rights and prevent abuse, as they are already doing. The challenge is to encourage all countries to embrace ICT as a powerful tool for promoting and realising human rights and fundamental freedoms everywhere, and in particular the freedom of opinion and expression.

These are the issues the World Summit on the Information Society will tackle. It may only be one event in the global policymaking calendar, though it should serve as a reminder that, as with any silent revolution, there is no shortcut on the path to the information and knowledge society.

© OECD Observer No 240/241, December 2003

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