UN Urged To Close Global Digital Divide

A panel of Information Technology (IT) experts commissioned by United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Kofi Annan reported Monday that urgent action is needed to slow the “digital divide” that is separating rich countries from poorer nations.

The panel said the United Nations should set a goal of allowing everyone in the world access to a computer and the Internet by 2005, even if they have to walk half a day to hook up with a mobile phone. If nothing is done, poorer nations could be permanently excluded from the Internet revolution, the experts warned.

Call for Global Initiative

Although there are now more than 1.5 billion Web sites and billions of e-commerce dollars (US$) flowing worldwide, less than five percent of the world’s population is online, the report said.

The panel told the UN General Assembly that catching up grows more difficult each day and that developing countries “face new barriers” and the risk of being “completely bypassed.”

“The panel calls on all actors to unite in a global initiative to meet the following challenge: provide access to the Internet, especially through community access points, for the world’s population presently without such access by the end of 2004,” the report said.

‘Alignment of Opportunity’

Responding to what panel leader Chuck Lankester described as an “extraordinary alignment of opportunity,” the plan calls for the United Nations to contribute $500 million of its own money and set up a special task force to coordinate efforts. Another $1.5 billion is to be raised from private industry and the developing countries themselves.

The plan also recommends that one percent of any participating country’s foreign debt be forgiven if it spends an equal amount on Information Technology.

The report will be presented to world leaders at the UN’s millennium summit in September, and to two other important gatherings in July: the Group of Eight developed nations plus Russia meeting, and the UN Economic and Social Council.

Globalization Targeted

Despite the optimism, organizations that promote globalization have met with fierce opposition in recent months. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has been a particular target — with its meeting in Seattle, Washington last December severely disrupted by mass demonstrations.

Opponents of the WTO, which released a study Tuesday by two academics arguing that market liberalization helps ease poverty, say they are planning more protests at the group’s Geneva headquarters the day before the UN summit.

Meanwhile, the digital divide exists in the United States, but not to the same extent as around the world. Less than half of U.S. households with average incomes less than $15,000 — about three million — will have Internet access by 2005, according to Jupiter Communications, and about 20 million households with incomes of more than $75,000 will be online.

The National Science Foundation said Monday that 54 percent of U.S. residents have access to at least one computer in the home, an 11 percent increase from 1997. The number of home computers with modems enabling Internet access rose from 21 percent in 1995 to 46 percent in 1999.

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