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 You are in: Under Secretary for Economic, Energy and Agricultural Affairs > Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs > All Remarks and Releases > Remarks > 2003

ICT, WSIS and the Future of Freedom

Ambassador David A. Gross, U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy
WSIS High Level Dialogue
Geneva, Switzerland
December 9, 2003

(As prepared for delivery)

The Internet's Promise

Some eight years have passed since the Information Revolution first crashed into our collective consciousness. While the Revolution has not lived up to all the hype, it has delivered on many of its promises. It has changed the way many of us live, learn and work.

In many societies, information and communication technology has brought education to the under-served through distance learning. It has expanded the reach of health care through tele-medicine. It has improved governance by enhancing government-to-citizen and government-to-business exchanges.

In the business world, the deflated dot.com bubble has left standing several important companies that did not exist 15 years ago. Ebay, Yahoo, and Amazon alone have a market capitalization of roughly $85 billion. Global electronic commerce revenue this year will reach at least $1.4 trillion and possibly as much as $3.9 trillion, according to a new UNCTAD report (UN Conference on Trade and Development E-commerce and Development Report 2003). Perhaps more importantly, the way business does business has changed forever. Whether the issue is customer care, enterprise management, just-in-time logistics, virtual companies, outsourcing, or vortals, the rise of the Internet has fundamentally changed the way firms operate.

The Challenge to Authoritarianism

The rise of the Internet also promised to make possible an unprecedented exchange of information and knowledge. In the process, it promised to challenge censorship and erode the foundations of authoritarianism. In the most optimistic and simplistic formulations, the mere introduction of the Internet was going to unhinge authoritarian regimes and lead to a flowering of democracy. Some of these promises have been fulfilled but not everywhere and not equally.

Undoubtedly, more people in more countries have access to more information than ever before. ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) has even played a significant role in promoting political change. In the Philippines, for example, "people power" activists in 2000 and early 2001 used short messaging services to help wage a campaign that ultimately unseated then-President Joseph Estrada. Many states, however, have sought successfully to stymie the free flow of information. The truth is that the Internet often defies but alone cannot defeat the forces of repression.

Some countries use firewalls and force users to connect to the Internet through state-controlled networks. Some limit their citizens' access to computers, register users, monitor e-mails and impose punitive deterrents. Still others use patronage and censorship to shape what their citizens know. Some try to do all of these things.

These countries are attempting -- vainly I believe -- to deflect the course of history. With the aim of maintaining political control, they run the risk of undermining much of the promise of the Internet and denying their peoples a richer more rewarding life. Freedom to express, innovate and exchange are the lifeblood of the progress these countries and their peoples desire.

The Challenge in the Middle East

I want to take a moment to follow up on the remarks made by President Bush in his November 6th remarks to the National Endowment for Democracy and his November 19th remarks at Whitehall in the U.K. The future of freedom is nowhere more important than in the Middle East.

We cannot lump together every country in the region. We must recognize and salute the significant differences that exist from country to country. Some governments, it is true, have been notably more successful than others in delivering on the promise of information and communication technology.

Nevertheless, as Arab scholars noted in the 2002 UN Arab Human Development Report, the region as a whole is plagued by a "freedom deficit." The treatment of ICTs is part and parcel of this deficit. In fact, the treatment of ICTs is helping to perpetuate a regional information and knowledge deficit that undermines progress in every sphere of life.

To quote the report, "Knowledge determines the wealth of nations and defines the livable state in the age of globalization." Yet Arabs, who represent five percent of the world population, represent only .5 percent of Internet users. There are only 18 computers per 1000 citizens in the Arab world, as compared to the global average of 78 per 1000.

To gain the full measure of the ICTs' benefits, Arab states must create conditions where the Internet can be used to freely create and share information and knowledge. While Arab states have been reluctantly ceding their monopoly over the telecommunications sector, they must also abandon their monopoly over the content of information.

The Internet could be used more effectively in the Arab world to allow NGOs to thrive. The Internet could be used more effectively to address the region's education, training and public health challenges. The Internet could be used more effectively to make governments more accessible, accountable and transparent. The Arab world can achieve these goals but only if it embraces the freedom that sustains such progress. Because of the importance we place on ICT, the US Government has pledged to work on incorporating digital connectivity and information technology issues in relevant projects through the Middle East Partnership Initiative.

The Foundations of the Information Society

This brings me, finally, to the World Summit on the Information Society. If the WSIS is to succeed in outlining a vision of the information society that truly enhances our lives it must embrace and encourage freedom in all regions of the world. To quote my boss, Secretary of State Colin Powell:

"In the new century, growth will be based on information and opportunity. Information drives markets, ensures a rapid reaction to health crises like SARS, and brings new entrepreneurial opportunities to societies....The keys to prosperity in an information economy are education, individual creativity, and an environment of political and economic freedom. An environment of economic and political freedom is the sina qua non for the kind of progress we are talking about."

WSIS' overriding vision for the information society should be one that promotes political and economic freedom in order to offer our citizens the opportunity to access and utilize information to better their lives. Particularly when it comes to freedom of the press, a UN-sponsored summit like WSIS has important standards to uphold.

We must work together to ensure that the Summit achieves concrete outcomes that are fully consistent with the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. The Summit provides an important opportunity for the international community to reaffirm its commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The final Summit Declaration and Plan of Action should promote press freedom and preserve intellectual property rights that fuel knowledge creation and innovation. If the Summit is to contribute to the growth of a real "global information society," it must reaffirm -- and loudly -- the rights boldly set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Conclusion

In conclusion let me say that we all recognize that ICT has become a new tool for achieving economic and social development. Few of us question the growing global consensus that information-based technologies are fundamental to meeting basic development objectives. Few of us question that the future prosperity and well being of all nations now depend in part on our ability to access and use these new tools effectively. What is not always so clearly understood is that the freedom to innovate, the freedom to create, and the freedom to share ideas with people around the world are the foundation of a global, inclusive information society. Ultimately, we can make a Global Information Society a reality by ensuring that WSIS reaffirms the UN's most enduring principles.


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