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by Gopi Pradhan, Chin Saik Yoon, Joao Cancio Freitas
The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was conceived during the euphoria of the dotcom boom but convened only in the aftermath of its crash. The timing provided the summit with a sobering perspective of the true potentials of ICT as well as the daunting challenges we face in bridging the chasm that separates those economies that have managed to seize the opportunities offered by ICT during the past decade and those that have not. The “level¬playing field” that the new technologies had previously promised is long gone. Ironically, instead of levelling relationships, the information and communication sectors have become more uneven with the advent of ICT. And the sharp divide, already well entrenched within the global mass media and telecommunications sectors, has deepened further.
At the same time, the boundary between the “new” technologies, exemplified by the computer and the Internet, and the “old” technologies of television, telephone, radio and print has been permanently blurred. The convergence of the new, digital technologies with the content and the industrial and business processes of their analogue predecessors has made a misnomer of the “digital” label in describing the divide. The chasm really referred to an information, knowledge and entrepreneurial divide by the time representatives of governments, civil society, academe and businesses met in Geneva in December 2003 during the first phase of WSIS.
This chapter picks up where WSIS Geneva left off. It focuses on two principal areas of the WSIS Plan of Action that were adopted at the end of the meeting.1 The first refers to section C, “Action Lines”, and the second to section D, “Digital Solidarity Agenda”. The chapter will propose, for salient elements of the plan of action, policies and activities that when implemented will nurture information societies across Asia Pacific. These proposals will aim to selectively address issues that are urgent for the region, rather than comprehensively cover all the action steps proposed in the WSIS plan.
Asia Pacific is a stark example of how far the divide extends. Examples of the most and least connected economies of the world can be found all at once in the region.
South Korea, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong are all prime examples of highly networked societies consuming a stunning variety of content, services and entertainment online. Also located in the region are countries like Afghanistan and Timor-Leste that are painstakingly rebuilding their basic ICT infrastructure from the ground up after near total devastation during recent conflict. The region is also home to economies such as North Korea that have elected to tightly manage access to ICTs, including the Internet, fax, telephone and mass media, and curb their growth.
Because of these large differences, the more advanced economies of the region are aligned more closely with North America and Europe than with the Asia-Pacific region in terms of economic interests. For the same reason, the economies that have only recently begun to rebuild their ICT infrastructure will find that they are facing challenges more like those of Africa than those of Asia Pacific. In this sense, the region is diverging.
However, there is evidence to suggest the possibility of convergence of the disparate interests of the Asia-Pacific economies. The region comprises the most promising untapped segments for the fast-saturating global markets for goods and services. Geography has also permanently fused the cultural, political and strategic interests of neighbouring economies; and recent history has proven that Asia Pacific has more to gain from working in unity than from competition with each other. The divide provides a unique opportunity to bring about this convergence to safeguard the region’s long-term interests.