Report: PrepCom II of the World Summit on the Information Society (Phase I)

Volunteer Reporters
28 February 2003

Plenary: Visionaries panel - Visionaries speak out about the future of the Information Society

Time: 17 February 2003, 15:00-18:00 Location: ICCG Chair: Ms. Maria Livanos Cattaui, Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) Presenters/ Participants: Mr. Yoshio Utsumi, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
H.E. Mr. Ion Iliescu, President of Romania
H.E. Mr. Abdoulaye Wade, President of the Republic of Senegal
Professor Lawrence Lessig, Stanford Law School USA
Dr. Jacques Attali, writer and Chair, PlaNet Finance Reporter: Mr. Zhenying Wu, ICVolunteers Languages: English with interpretation in French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian and Chinese Key words: Information society, development, telecommunication, internet, technology.

This session was an introductory reflection session to the conference, where eminent thinkers from political, academic and intellectual worlds came to share their visions of the promises of an Information Society, and bring forward proposals of how to make it reality without leaving anybody behind.

Mr. Utsumi opened the session with a brief welcome note and presented the panellists -visionaries- invited for the occasion. He reminded the audience how the history of communications was decided by great technology leaps, and shared his belief that we find ourselves now precisely at the centre of another such revolution. In the past, they have benefited some countries and peoples while others were left behind. The global community has today the opportunity to shape the future of the Information Society for the benefit of all.

H.E. Mr. Ion Iliescu, President of Romania, spoke of the initiatives in his country to promote technology and the Internet and underlined the importance of the regional telecommunications conference held in 2002 in Bucharest. He stressed that governments should be recognized natural and inevitable partners in establishing the political, economic, social and cultural instruments to organize the Information Society (IS). The e-economy turned out to be not a new and separated entity, but rather an extension of the classic economy and a tool to reinforce it. The President underlined also the absolute necessity to coordinate efforts at international and national levels so that, unlike in the past, the new technologies available are used for the benefit of all.

The digital divide separating rich and technology-savvy countries from the developing world is just another layer on top of the other separating factors, and as it is a global problem, it demands a global solution. In Romania, the government is putting efforts into improving access to technology at educational institutions, creating a virtual national library, and implementing many e-government initiatives.

The President then spoke about the vulnerability of the modern society that stems from its dependence on technology - hence the necessity to establish an efficient legal framework to prevent abuse and protect individual privacy.

Finally, President Iliescu mentioned how, despite the tendency towards uniformity brought by the Internet, cultural diversity needs to be preserved. IT will not solve any problems by itself, but it can reinforce positive processes if they are applied correctly.

Prof. Lawrence Lessig, in quality of an authority on the legal environment around IT and the Internet, then shared some of his insights with the audience on the promises of modern technology, and how they could be threatened by an inadequate legal system. The Internet came to birth, as a neutral, democratic and international network, with the power distributed to the edges instead of being controlled by the owners of the network, and that thrived on free content and foreign contributions. Today, that original neutrality has been compromised in many ways, and network owners are trying to exercise control on what kind of innovation can happen in cyberspace.

Prof. Lessig painted his dream of seeing the antic library of Alexandria rebuilt on the Internet, and gave two specific recent examples that could prevent this dream from becoming reality. In the United States of America a law has been passed recently to extend the copyrights on existing artistic creations for another 20 years. This happened despite the fact that barely 2% of the creations impacted by the bill are still commercially exploited, and the remaining 98% of works are also withheld from being offered on the Internet, due to the impossibility to track down every single copyright owner and obtain permission. Another example is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which in some instances not only forbids use of copyrighted material for illegal piracy, but also for acceptable purposes of faire use. These are examples of laws that do not take into account the needs of both commercial and non-commercial sectors.

In Prof. Lessig's view, although the themes of IS and copyrights are usually tackled separately, the future of Information Society is fundamentally tied to the debate on intellectual property. The question is not whether there will be an Information Society, but whether it will be a free, or a feudal one.

Dr. Jacques Attali, writer and Chair of PlaNet Finance introduced his presentation the following anecdote: In renaissance Europe, when scholars first discussed the invention of printing, the general opinion was that it would bestow additional and outrageous power to the Church, since bibles could become mass-distributed and wide-spread, and that Latin would wipe out all other languages since it was the dominating language in books. Of course the exact opposite happened. This example should remind us that change can only be considered together with the mutation it brings upon the various paradigms of society. The relation that future societies will have with technology is the hardest part to predict.

The downward trends in costs of information transmission mean that distances are in effect reduced. Free exchanges induce further mutual dependency between countries and continents - hence globalization, and the regulation problems that come with it. The information has entered the entire economy. In the future it will be more flexible, more available, but also more fragile. The companies that will not accept these new conditions will not be able to survive.
The World is more uniform, but the differences that remain are more visible, and as a result there is an acute feeling of injustice from those who are locked out, neither information emitters nor receivers. 
Dr. Attali sees, for the short-middle term, the following challenges ahead:

  • Establish a clear legal framework on information, public/private property and borders. Ways need to be established to know the information in circulation and classify it. 
  • Financing the access of poor parts of the world to technology, and integration of big and small sources of information. We are probably going towards an explosion of various sources of information, rather than a concentration among a few big players, as some fear.
  • The Information Society will need a way to classify information in a hierarchy. If all pieces of information were considered to have equal value, the Internet would just be one big information dump.
  • How IT can be used to reduce poverty.

In the long term, Internet is going to tend towards chaos. At some point, there will be a demand for authority. This begs of course the question of where this authority is going to come from. Governments? Universities? Independent Organizations?

H.E. Mr. Abdoulaye Wade, President of Senegal, allegorically told the story of a man, walking on a road, who sees a bus passing him by. That man is not too worried - he thinks he will have time at some point to catch up to that bus. But then a stream of light, electrons and bits, overtakes that same man, and he is not even aware of what happened, so different are his world and the world of technology, that of the Information Society. With this story, President Wade expresses his concern that Africa and the other developing countries could be left behind in the Information Revolution. Down the road the gap may be one too large to bridge.

As Vice-President of the NEPAD charged with the technology development questions, the President is especially qualified to express himself on these questions. He shared with the audience his optimism, despite the recent setbacks and the end of the Internet bubble, and his belief that the new technologies will change the face of the world forever.

The promise of the Internet is that, despite the appearances, it emphasizes the power of the people. The base equipment -computer and network connection- is not overly costly. The President related an experiment of last year, where people in far and inaccessible parts of his country were given health advice through computers and a satellite link. Remote learning is like an historical invitation to take place at the table of knowledge. For the first time, everybody has equal access. If online universities could become a reality, it would permit access to foreign know-how, while stopping the brain drain that is a very big problem in developing countries, with their best and brightest getting hired away by foreign companies. 

The President also made the practical proposal of a plan about digital solidarity, where advanced countries with high Internet and computer penetration would finance and help less advanced regions. This would require instruments to quantify the technology levels in a country. One can think of a digital snake-like curb, with a superior and inferior margin, and all participating countries would be required to stay within these margins, like in similar programs about monetary or economic policies.
The Indian example has shown that, when the conditions are right, developing countries can play a leading role in the technology playfield, and be an inspiration. According President Wade, we stand now at a crossroad where if we have the will, the choc of civilizations can be made into the meeting of civilizations.

Interesting Questions
After their presentations, the panellists answered various questions from the floor. A delegate from Algeria, building on the proposal from President Wade, asked how IT development in developing countries could be financed. Various possibilities were mentioned, like a tax on the transit of information through these countries. The audience was informed that some countries are indeed receiving debt relief - 1% of their debt payments can be used to develop technology infrastructures, but the list of countries qualifying for the conditions of this program is rather short. Dr. Attali proposed also to make the providers of the Internet participate in the financing, since they have been the major beneficiaries of the circulation of free content on the Internet.

The session was concluded by final comments by each of the speakers.

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