UN Events Map Efforts To Narrow Digital Divide, Increase Information Access 16/05/2008 by Kaitlin Mara for Intellectual Property Watch Leave a Comment Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window)By Kaitlin Mara Nearly three weeks of meetings of governments, civil society organisations, trade groups, and intergovernmental bodies will report on how far nations have come towards bridging the so-called “digital divide” between those who have access to information technology and all of its attendant benefits, and those whom the digital revolution is passing by. A cluster of events taking place in Geneva from the 13 to 30 May culminates in the eleventh session of the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development, to be held 26-30 May, where there will be a review of progress made on implementing goals outlined by World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), on creating “infrastructure and an enabling environment” for equitable access to information and communications technology. The WSIS meetings – held in two phases in Geneva in 2003 and Tunis in 2005 – were tasked with outlining first principles and then a plan of action for taking advantage of opportunities provided by leaps in communications technology, especially through mobile phones and the internet, to transform the way that global problems can be addressed. These new technologies have “fundamentally changed the way people think, behave, communicate, work and earn their livelihood,” says the website of WSIS, which is organised by the UN International Telecommunication Union. They have allowed people to forge new sorts of economic partnerships, to arrange for faster humanitarian assistance, have empowered democratic movements, and have allowed for boundary-less exchange of innovative ideas on topics from environmental protection to software creation. But these opportunities are currently only selectively available, as lack of access to the World Wide Web, to mobile phone networks, and to the basic infrastructure and educational needs that facilitate such access means those not connected are falling further and further behind. A significant goal of the WSIS meetings and implementation is to ameliorate inequalities of access to information and communication services that threaten to put at a significant disadvantage individuals shut out of the global network, with the eventual aim of creating “an information society for all.” Intellectual Property and the Information Society Events this week broadly give governments and other stakeholders a chance to come together and report on progress made to date, including on the building of access-related infrastructure, such as purchase of computers or the expansion of broadband network area, and literacy training, either through computer training courses or even basic language training, as often foreign-language literacy is required to access much of the Web. Upcoming meetings of particular interest to intellectual property specialists include a 19 May meeting with UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, discussing access to information and knowledge, and a 22-23 meeting on security and the use of information technology, which is being run by the ITU. A 27 May meeting on South-South technology transfer might also have intellectual property implications. Of interest and already held to date were the open consultations for the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). The IGF was created as a way for multidisciplinary stakeholders to have a “policy dialogue” on the continued stability and future development of the internet, with the intent of fostering increased information sharing and best practices for use. Also held was a reporting session of national parliaments on their strategies for incentivising information technology use on open source software and open standards as key to increased access for the information society. Other topics during the “cluster” of WSIS-related events include environment, media, e-science, capacity-building, infrastructure, measurements, e-business, ethics, education and e-government. The IGF discussion was a chance for all WSIS stakeholders to exchange ideas for workshops at the next IGF in December, to be held in Hyderabad, India. Among other points discussed, the United States wanted to ensure that cybersecurity issues such as spam and privacy are discussed. The nation also emphasised that the IGF should remain a decentralised, non-binding discussion. Industry group ICC/Basis agreed with US on the latter point, saying that it would detract from the fluidity of discussion if the IGF became about negotiating specific outcomes. China said it wanted to “promote a democratic, transparent, multilateral internet governance process” and Russia emphasised the safeguarding of the web from cybercrime, especially the use of the internet for terrorism. A full transcript of the event is available here. Over 100 proposals for workshops had been submitted, and a closed meeting of the IGF Advisory group was hammering out a final agenda plan for the December meeting. Two delegates at the parliamentary session in particular discussed free and open source as a means to further spread the information society. Hanne Agersnap of the Danish Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee discussed the importance of compatibility and therefore the need for open standards. You should not be excluded from communicating with government representatives because you use the wrong kind of software, she said. The Danish government is requiring all new software acquisitions from January 2008 to comply with a set of open standards, including those on document format, data exchanges, and electronic file sharing. Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, head of the collaborative creativity group at the United Nations University, used several metaphors to further illustrate the need for open standards. Imagine, he said, that in the Netherlands you could only fill out your tax form using a Bic pen, or that in the United States you could only claim emergency funding if you drove to the office in a Ford car: these would be unacceptable situations. Yet, he said, it used to be that in the Netherlands you could only file taxes online if using Microsoft’s Windows operating system, and after the recent hurricane Katrina natural disaster in New Orleans, people were required to use Internet Explorer and MS Word, both Microsoft programs, in order to file claims. Not being a Microsoft customer in both of these cases meant loss of certain citizenship rights. Open source software – or software on a licence allowing access to the source code, including to modify it and share the modifications, also is key for the expansion of the information society, said Ghosh. Allowing modifications not only engages people in software, empowering and educating them in information technology skills, but also allows for the localisation of software programs. Open Office, the free software version of Microsoft Word, exists in the Marathi language in India because a group of school teachers decided to translate it, he said. This would have been impossible with proprietary software, since it would have been owned by one company and they would have had to do the translation. Open source allows free adaptation, says Ghosh, which is essential for the developing internet use worldwide. Kaitlin Mara may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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