UN calls on G8 to address ‘digital divide'

New York alone has more Internet sites than the whole African continent and Finland has more sites than Latin America and the Caribbean, the United Nations said, illustrating the huge information and communication technology (ICT) gap in the world.

Use of the Internet, and the revolution brought about by ICT, has already caused "momentous implications" for the development of the economy and social situation in the world, it said.

"The gross disparity in the spread of the Internet, and thus the economic and social benefits derived from it, is a matter of profound concern," the UN said in a study on ICT, which is part of discussion on globalisation and interdependence.

The study will be presented for discussion in early July by government ministers attending the month-long session of the UN Economic and Social Council in New York.

The study will be presented also to the annual meeting of the world's seven most industrialised nations and Russia to be held in Okinawa from July 21 to 23. The Group of Eight (G8) may create a support group to tackle the "digital divide" in poor countries, and is likely to reach the agreement as an "IT charter".

The charter is designed to support competition in the telecomms sector in a bid to achieve sustainable and balanced economic growth through IT.

The G8 has called on the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development and other bodies to speed up efforts to set global standards on e-commerce. Mutual rules will ensure the security of online transactions and protect both consumers and privacy.

At the same time the G8 is also expected to call on each country to cut regulations in the telecomms sector to encourage competition and bring down telecomms fees.

In the planned charter the G8 will call on governments, the private sector, the World Bank and nongovernment groups to establish jointly a new group to counter the "digital divide" between rich and poor countries.

The United Nations said the "formidable and urgent challenge" facing governments is to bridge the divide and connect the remainder of the world's countries and populations whose livelihoods could be enhanced with access to the Internet.

It urged governments to try to connect 80 per cent of those that are unconnected today to the Internet by 2004.

"Developing countries have great potential to compete successfully in the new global market, but unless they embrace the ICT revolution promptly and actively, they will face new barriers and the risk of not just being marginalised but completely bypassed," the UN study said.

The study said e-commerce reached $US45 billion ($74.44 billion) in 1998 and could hit $US7 trillion ($11.6 trillion) by 2004. But it said e-commerce is produced by less than five per cent of the world's population.

"E-commerce is rapidly becoming a trade barrier for those who are not connected," the study said.

It said an estimated 276 million people used the Internet as of last March, and the number of users grows by 150,000 each day.

It said hundreds of millions of people access daily the World Wide Web, which has an estimated 1.5 billion Web pages with close to two million pages added daily.

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