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Internet summit ends after little progress

A crucial summit on expanding Internet access around the world ended Friday with a firm promise to narrow the digital divide — but little in government funding to make it happen.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A crucial summit on expanding Internet access around the world ended Friday with a firm promise to narrow the digital divide — but little in government funding to make it happen.

The World Summit on the Information Society originally was conceived to raise consciousness about the divide between the haves and have-nots, and to raise money for projects to link up the global village, particularly Africa and Asia and South America.

But instead, it was overshadowed by a lingering resentment about who should oversee the domain names and technical issues that allow people from Pakistan to Peru surf Web sites for information, news and consumer goods.

"They have promised and promised and promised, and it's not the first time that they have promised this," said Diallo Mohamadou, a telecommunications consultant from Senegal. "In 2000, they promised to connect all the small villages far away from the big cities in Africa to the Internet. Five years later and nothing has happened."

Negotiators from more than 100 countries had agreed on the eve of the meeting to leave the United States in charge of the Internet's addressing system, averting a U.S.-EU showdown at this week's U.N. technology summit. But resentment over perceived U.S. control persisted.

Yoshio Utsumi, secretary-general of the International Telecommunications Union, which helped oversee the summit, said governments, private industry and others must follow through on agreements made this week.

"We haven't resolved everything, but the principle is that all governments have an equal role in responsibility," he told The Associated Press. "Internet communications technology is an opportunity for development, but at the same time we do have the risk of digital divide."

He said it could take years to see the outcome.

"It is not the end, just the beginning, but the homework is enormous," Utsumi said. "The summit itself ended, but many, many meetings, action and partnership programs must start."

Despite the pledges to expand access and lower costs, some warned that it would take not just commitments of money, but time and resources.

"People can see the light at the end of the tunnel but they have to find the ways to keep going," said Marshall Smith, program director for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which makes educational materials for students and teachers in Africa and elsewhere available free of charge.

Another thread of concern was keeping the Internet a forum for free speech and dissent.

"It is vital that the Internet remain a neutral medium open to all in order to realize that access for our citizens," John Marburger, director of the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy, said in a not-so-subtle swipe at Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisia's selection as the host of the summit has raised eyebrows. On Thursday, the head of Reporters Without Borders was ordered out of the country after arriving at the airport. Earlier this week, human rights groups said Tunisian and foreign reporters had been harassed and beaten.

"It is the role of governments to ensure that this freedom of expression is available to its citizens and not to stand in the way of people seeking to send and receive information across the Internet," Marburger said.