'We Are Embarked on an Endeavour That Transcends Technology': From Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Statement to the World Summit on the Information Society on 10 December 2003

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I would like to thank the Government of Switzerland for the extraordinary support it has provided for this Summit--not just the warm hospitality and the typical Swiss efficiency, but also the steadfast political commitment to making this Summit a success. I would also like to thank Mr. [Yoshio] Utsumi and the International Telecommunication Union for the openness with which they have managed the Summit process and for working so effectively with the entire UN system.

We are going through a historic transformation in the way we live, learn, work, communicate and do business. We must do so not passively but as makers of our own destiny. Technology has produced the information age. Now it is up to all of us to build an information society.

This Summit is unique. Where most global conferences focus on global threats, this one will consider how best to use a new global asset.

We are all familiar with the extraordinary power of information and communications technologies. From trade to telemedicine, from education to environmental protection, we have in our hands, on our desktops and in the skies above, the ability to improve standards of living for millions of people on this planet.

We have tools that can propel us toward the Millennium Development Goals, instruments with which to advance the cause of freedom and democracy, vehicles with which to propagate knowledge and mutual understanding. We have all of this potential. The challenge before this Summit is what to do with it.

The so-called digital divide is actually several gaps in one:

There is a technological divide--great gaps in infrastructure. There is a content divide. A lot of web-based information is simply not relevant to the real needs of people. And nearly 70 per cent of the world's web sites are in English, at times crowding out local voices and views. There is a gender divide, with women and girls enjoying less access to information technology than men and boys. This can be true of rich and poor countries alike--some developing countries are among those offering the most digital opportunities for women, while some developed countries have done considerably less well. There is a commercial divide, E-commerce is linking some countries and companies ever more closely together. But others run the risk of further marginalization. Some experts describe the digital divide as one of the biggest non-tariff barriers to world trade. And there are obvious social, economic and other disparities and obstacles that affect a country's ability to take advantage of digital opportunities.

We cannot assume that such gaps will disappear on their own, over time, as the diffusion of technology naturally spreads its wealth. …