The secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, warned today (10 December) that a "content divide" is threatening to deprive developing countries of the full benefits offered by information and communication technologies (ICTs).
And, with the physicist who invented the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, he told school children around the world not to believe everything that they read on the Internet. Both urged them to be guided by the "wisdom" of their teachers in interpreting what they find there.
Annan was speaking on the first day of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which is taking place this week in Geneva, Switzerland, attended by more than 10,000 delegates from about 150 countries.
In his opening address to the meeting, he said that ICTs offered the means to improve standards of living for millions of people, and were "vehicles with which to propagate knowledge and mutual understanding".
But several factors were contributing to the digital divide that prevented these goals from being adequately achieved. In particular, in addition to "great gaps" in the necessary infrastructure, there was also what he described as a content divide.
"A lot of web-based information is simply not relevant to the real needs of people," said Annan.
It should not be assumed, he added, that the gaps would disappear on their own with the gradual diffusion of technology. "An open, inclusive information society that benefits all people will not emerge without sustained commitment and investment."
To achieve this, said Annan, government leaders needed to demonstrate political will, while media organisations could also contribute "as both creators of content and essential watchdogs".
Annan said that although ICTs were not a panacea or magic formula, they could still improve the lives of everyone on the planet. "Yet while technology shapes the future, it is people who shape technology, and decide what it can and should be used for."
Building an open, empowering information society was therefore "a social, economic and ultimately political challenge," he concluded.
Later in the day, Annan attended a ceremony at which Berners-Lee used the world's first web server – which he had originally built in the early 1990s to facilitate communication between physicists – to send an email to more than 80 schools worldwide.
"When you are learning about the web, you may be faster at learning to use computers than your teachers," said their joint message. "But listen to their wisdom about how to behave and what to believe on the web."
As political leaders around the world address the WSIS plenary sessions on the opportunities and challenges facing their countries, behind-the-scenes negotiations are expected to continue on several contentious issues.
One is the extent to which, in response to calls from Annan and others, the developed countries will agree to commit themselves to providing significant additional funding for ICT projects in the developing world.
Several African leaders – for example, the heads of Mali, Mozambique and Senegal – are expected to call for richer nations to increase their support for the purchase of ICT equipment and infrastructure, for example for high-speed Internet links.
At a meeting held at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) at the beginning of the week, Lydia Brito, the minister of higher education and research for Mozambique, said that substantial investment was essential in both hardware and the human resources to use it effectively.
"The political will to move in this direction already exists at all levels," said Brito. "In Mozambique we are willing to proceed. But we cannot do it on our own."
Despite such appeals, developed nations have, in the preparations for WSIS, been resisting calls to set up a special fund to help bridge the digital divide. As a compromise, a 'Digital Solidarity Agenda' has been drafted for approval by the delegates attending the meeting before it ends on Friday.