15 December 2003



(Reissued as received.)

GENEVA, 11 December (UN Information Service) -- The second round table of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) this morning addressed the theme of diversity in cyberspace and also examined the opportunities and challenges before the world’s users and providers of Internet services.

The Moderator of the discussion was Nik Gowing of BBC World, and the Chair was Vaira Vike Freiberga, the President of Latvia.

The discussion revolved around three topics:  cultural and linguistic diversity, including the preservation of ancient culture; freedom of expression and media ownership; and law and ethics on the Internet, including the question of censorship, the use of cyber space in politics and how to agree on fundamental standards.

Regarding cultural diversity, participants highlighted this issue as fundamental to the information society and for the promotion of a dialogue between civilizations.  The question arose on how to create content in local languages, digitize and disseminate it.  Information and communication technologies (ICTs) could play a vital role in the preservation of culture.  Some speakers noted that the information superhighway was posing the threat of making information uniform.  This “homogenization” of culture was contributing to the extinction of “intangible cultural heritage”.

Chile said that since 85 per cent of Internet users knew English whereas the vast majority of the world’s people did not, therefore, only an elite group could avail itself of the Internet.  Benin went further by saying that since intangible heritage could not be easily recorded, society was pushing people to adopt the culture of economically stronger powers, risking “losing our soul”.

Nik Gowing observed that “the race was on to beat the disappearance of languages”.  The world was concerned about the disappearance of animals and plants, but not cultures.  This was a true dilemma.  A non-governmental organization (NGO) added that the world’s 67,000 languages were threatened in much the same way as biodiversity extinction, since 75 per cent of content was driven by English.  The Council of Europe said that we must first agree on the principle of diversity to avoid a clash of visions.  Society had to overcome the mental divide before overcoming the digital divide.  The NGO Isis International lamented the image peddled of non-Western cultures as anthropologically different from the mainstream.

Speakers said that public-private partnerships were crucial for fostering the development of local content.  Extending broadband access to rural communities was one area where business was a key actor.  Egypt stressed that the costs of creating e-culture content were prohibitively expensive.  Market forces were not enough to ensure diversity of content.  Nowadays, physical infrastructure was becoming more affordable; however, the specific skills required to customize content required not only huge financial investments but also the commitment from governments and civil society.  New Zealand and Egypt said that communities, but especially children, should be involved in determining content and should become active owners of their heritage.  This would ensure a sustainable preservation of heritage.

Highlighted too were the need to expand search engines in local languages and develop the capacity for translation of content.  Also raised was the question of universalizing access to public domain information.

Turning to the theme of freedom of expression and media ownership, the representative from the International Federation of Journalists stated that governments had a critical role in removing obstacles to achieving those principles.  Media independence, pluralism and freedom of expression required strong national legislation to guard against media monopolies and intrusion.  Journalists were responsible and accountable, but what exactly was responsibility?  He preferred the term professionalism, which meant self-regulation and the maintenance of professional independence.  Other speakers contended that external checks and balances were necessary.

Finally, on the question of law and ethics on the Internet, participants stated that all stakeholders should increase their awareness of the ethical dimensions of the issue and should do their utmost to promote respect for peace, equality and shared responsibility.  They accorded special importance to upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Specific recommendations arising from the debate included the elaboration of a convention for protection against spam and on establishing another convention to enable users to build on existing content without breaching existing copyright laws.

Participating in the round table, among others, were the Prime Minister of Uganda, as well as the Ministers from Pakistan, Morocco, Nepal, Mauritius, Egypt, New Zealand, Algeria, Rwanda, Lithuania, Argentina, and Chile. 

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