World Summit on the Information Society
Mr. Nitin Desai
The first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, which is hosted by the Government of Switzerland and is organized by the International Telecommunications Union, will take place in Geneva from 10 to 12 December 2003, . The second phase will take place in Tunis in 2005.
Mr. Nitin Desai, the
Special Adviser to
Annan for the World Summit
on the Information Society.
Why is it so important to have a World Summit
on the Information Society now?
Nitin Desai: Firstly, I think the reason is that basically until now, the development of information technology (IT) has been very technological. Every year something new comes out and everybody focuses on incorporating new technology, whether it is a new processor, software, or whatever, into their existing environment. Increasingly, the question which people ask is, what use is being made of this technology? Developing this idea is not really a matter for IT professionals. The people who are using the technology also need to be involved. Also, as we are moving into a phase where the expansion of technology and related industry, requires us to get into new areas, geographical concerns, of the digital divide issue - new sectors of education, health, government and not just commerce and finance. This requires us to bring in new actors; we have to bring in people involved in education - UNESCO, education departments, etc, and t people working in the health sector, such as: WHO and UNAIDS. Much more cooperation is needed with others, because the concern will not spread unless most sectors become part of the whole exercise. For this reason, we have to operate at different levels and thats why there is a Summit.
What do you see as the product, the added
value of the Summit?
I think this summit will first really mark an important shift of focus in policy and program planning on technology to the use being made of the technology.
What do you expect from the participants
It is not enough to know how many computers a government has or how many computers the UN has. The real issue is: what are you doing with them? How many of your transactions, lets say between employees and the administration, take place through the Net? Basically, to use the tools offered by technology to start processing more transactions, while remembering that the Internet is also a tool of communication. Are you really using the flow of information from this technology or are you simply treating it as a way of projecting your ideas to other people? Increasingly, attention will be focused on two-way communication, making transactions quicker, more efficient and more effective.
Based on the actual world situation, are
you optimistic in terms of the expected outcome of the Summit? What
do you think would be the ideal scenario?
What I think will come out is a clearer understanding of what the digital divide is about. We tend to talk too much in terms of the difference between computers and the number of phone lines. If I ask myself how many schools and universities in the USA are connected to the Internet and how many schools and universities in the developing countries are connected to the Internet that difference is even greater than the difference in the number of telephones per thousand people and the number of computers. The real digital divide is in the use of this technology.
“The closure of the “digital
divide” is part of the
The modern world has evolved from the industrial
society of the 20th century towards an information society
of the 21st century. Do you think that the practical
will, required for the establishment of the basis for a future information
society around the world, will be expressed during the Summit together
with a plan of action?
Yes, and one of the most important achievements here will be the projection of a vision of an information society. This requires us to look at society issues and at political issues. What is the point of having a tool of communication and not being able to make full use of it? Thats why issues about freedom of expression and access to information are on the agenda here.
What is the Secretary-Generals vision
concerning a global implementation of information technology and its
impact on the way people live?
In the UN our strong focus has been in the application of technology for public purposes : education, health and care, providing poor people with better connectivity to markets, governments and e-governments. We have tended to focus attention in those areas, because thats really where support is required, in the public service applications of this technology. Of course we must ensure that we use it adequately within the UN.
On the ITU web site we can read : The
WSIS global challenge : making the information society a reality for
all. Do you share the principle that information technology can
be a tool to reduce the gap between the developing world and the industrialized
Yes, I think so. In fact, IT is the defining technology of this century, and to me, as central as printing was at another time. We cannot afford to have a child come out school in this century who is not completely familiar with the use of this technology, or we will be depriving the child of something that would be like depriving an earlier generation of the ability to write.
What do you think should be done in order
to maximize the level of security of national and international network
These questions about security are highly technical ones. Quite frankly, not being a technician, Im not in a position to respond. However, what is important to recognize, is that in the case of the Internet it is not possible to tackle issues of security simply at the national level; it is a connected media. Something may happen in another country, which affects me; this is one of the most important things to recognize. We are a part of a technical environment, where global cooperation is not just an option, it is essential! You cannot protect simply by taking national measures. This is not a technical conference. This is a conference at a level of high-policy . The issue of Internet security is being discussed and they will certainly come out with new options, which will require more work in. In Brazil, 90 per cent of tax returns now come through the Internet. Internet security becomes a core issue for the economy, because if there is a problem there it is not simply an issue of Oh, I cant send my e-mail but the tax system gets directly affected.
Is it realistic to imagine the implementation
of ICT-based distance-learning programmes in some countries where some
basic needs are missing?
I think it is very important that we address the question of how we can give priority to ICT when people do not have enough to eat, or access to clean water or if they are illiterate or have persistent disease. That is why we have to make this technology available in accordance with the Millennium Declaration. It is expected that this technology will make it easier to attain the goals of education, of health, perhaps even in the area of poverty eradication. I would hope that at the Summit, people are going to come and present the uses they have made of technology. We will see many success stories; how this was used for educative purposes and how it was used in obtaining information on health quicker.
The Secretary-General announced a project
last June, concerning the installation of wi-fi for Internet access in the developing world. In this respect,
do you expect to have some commitments from participants during the
On wi-fi, I understand some proposals are being worked on. We had a meeting in New York on wi-fi infrastructure. Many people see wi-fi as the breakthrough in terms of the way to provide developing countries with Internet access. It has great implications in terms of cost reduction and the cost of networks provided in local areas and even in terms of telecommunications capacity. A lot is happening on the technology front, particularly on the wireless communications side, on Internet capacity and trying to link telephone numbers with the Internet address system. These issues pose important questions about ownership and responsibility of who is in charge, because telecommunications is under one structure and Internet governance is under another. And some form of communication will have to take place.
What are going to be the UN recommendations
to the Summit participants in December? Do you agree that the success
of the 2nd Summit, to take place in Tunis in 2005, will mainly depend
on what will be agreed here in Geneva?
I think it is very important that we come out with a clear agenda. A clear sense of priorities, the whole logic of the two-part exercise is a new area. We need a two-part exercise from the beginning. We will need to explore the areas where we need global agreement and spell those out, getting as much of it down as possible. But clearly there will be things that will be left open in terms of further development of more concrete initiatives, concrete programmes and concrete agreements. What I hope we will get from Geneva is a clear vision of the information society, a clear recognition that this is not just a technological matter but that this is a basic matter of development and democratization., a clear agenda for action. Some of it spelled out fully, but some of it requires further elaboration that we will work on in the run up to Tunis. I hope some important partnerships develop, as well.
Would you like to add anything else?
At the UN, we should not only see our role as one of supporting these processes of closing the digital divide but we must also see ourselves as people who can set an example, focusing on the use of this technology. Let me see all UN Offices accepting that. To look at our IT development not just in terms of number of computers but also in terms of how many transactions take place - personnel transactions, budget transactions, pay transactions, etc. How much of our communication takes place through the Internet? We must also see what way we use this medium to allow people in the UN family to connect better with one another. These are some of the technological challenges the UN faces.
Interview by Sergio da Silva, UNOG/ICTS.