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U.N. tech summit ends

Delegates to a U.N. summit approved an ambitious plan Friday to deliver Internet and other technologies to the world's poorest regions but it lacked definition and monetary muscle.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Delegates to a U.N. summit approved an ambitious plan Friday to deliver Internet and other technologies to the world's poorest regions but it lacked definition and monetary muscle.

Many of the tough decisions were deferred for two years, when the World Summit on the Information Society holds its second act in Tunisia. The gathering was far from a wash, however, for the hundreds of tech bootstrappers who got a chance to network and trade ideas.

"It's like a family reunion," said Derrick Cogburn, a University of Michigan information studies professor who brought four students.

By a voice vote Friday, representatives from about 175 countries, including more than 40 heads of state, approved a statement of principles and an action plan calling for deeply extending Internet and other communications into the developing world by 2015.

Negotiators could not agree on key questions such as whether a U.N. agency should be created to govern the Internet and whether to create a separate fund for projects to close the technology gap between rich and poor nations.

In lieu of getting his proposed Digital Solidarity Fund, Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade had to settle for a study.

Still, Wade said he was leaving with more than he came with: His advocacy got the attention of Western leaders who are largely opposed to the idea, and Geneva and Lyon, France, have pledged money already. The fund now has more than $1 million.

"You do not get people writing checks at these conferences," said Nitin Desai, special adviser to the summit for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. "At least there's agreement the group will look into specific funding requirements."

While government leaders and other senior officials gave speeches, Marlene Horstmann and hundreds of others in an adjacent hall exhibited their approaches to addressing the technology gap.

Horstmann's program finances projects in Ghana, Uganda and a handful of other countries to help farmers better use technology to their economic benefit.

Others used the summit, and the scores of side events at the Geneva Palexpo convention center, to promote and discuss their issues of interest: equality for women, empowerment of youths, open access to scientific journals, alternative software models.

The summit grew out of a 1995 U.N. International Telecommunication Union report on disparities in telephone penetration. The U.N. General Assembly endorsed it in 2001, by which time the scope was expanded to include the Internet and other communications technologies.

Though the two documents approved Friday offered little that was concrete, proponents said they were pleased to have gotten high-level officials of some nations _ rather than simply technology and information ministers _ to pay attention.

The gathering was also an opportunity for announcements including one from Microsoft Corp., which pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants, software and technical assistance for refugee camps in Russia and Africa.

Equal Access, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that tries to bring information on AIDS, agriculture and other issues to Asia, sought out new funding partners for satellite broadcast systems in Nepal and held key meetings toward making those systems two-way, giving a voice to regions without phone lines.

While some government officials took time out to hold talks with other leaders, they were often kept separate from business and civil society delegates, and there were few formal forums for the 12,000 participants to mingle.

But some exhibitors, including Arjun Adya, were leaving empty-handed.

Adya runs a company that helps Indian quilt-makers reach U.S. customers through eBay. He came seeking funding to expand his project to additional regions of India.

But after meeting with funding organizations, he said, they told him: "You have a successful model. Find an investor."