Working together to bridge the digital divide

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The leaders of the G-8 nations are taking bold steps to bridge the so-called "digital divide," and to ensure that the world's poorest countries share in the blessings of free and unfettered global electronic commerce.

In relative terms, we've only moved a few steps from the starting line of the information- and communications-technology revolution. This revolution may already have created untold wealth in the United States and Europe. But the cornucopia of benefits remains largely untapped for the developing nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Currently, 80 percent of the world's population has never even heard a telephone dial tone, while only 2 percent of the world's population is connected to the Internet. Even more incredibly, 2 billion of the earth's inhabitants subsist on the equivalent of $2 or less a day.

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The world's media paid scant attention to the e-commerce aspects of the G-8 summit in Okinawa in July. But G-8 leaders adopted policies to help broaden the reach of the Internet and e-commerce that were visionary.

First, a free flow of goods and ideas through cyberspace is imperative; and to accomplish that, the private and public sectors must agree on responsible and reasonable rules for the Internet.

In addition, access to education, to healthcare information and medical services, to buyers of local products, and to ideas and assistance with local business initiatives can be made available to all underdeveloped areas swiftly and cheaply via the Internet.

The world's business leaders in the e-commerce sector are also committed to bridging this significant technology divide. We know it is an investment that will cost us proportionately little when we consider the unlimited dividends likely to flow from it.

The Okinawa summit articulated a plan of action to accomplish this by establishing a Digital Opportunity Task Force (DOT Force) to address education, promote sound government policy, and encourage public-private partnerships.

Moreover, the G-8 leaders committed to expand their efforts to build greater understanding of the Internet's power in connecting individuals around the world. By enabling this myriad of individual relationships, the Internet holds the great promise of advancing international peace and prosperity much further than anything yet achieved by governments or corporations.

The leaders meeting in Okinawa embraced global and market-driven solutions to e-commerce issues, and renewed their commitment to working with all governments to develop policies and regulatory and legal frameworks to ensure the free flow of commerce through cyberspace.

The G-8 recognized that the collaboration of all stakeholders is essential to bridge the digital divide. Governments, businesses, the so-called nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), foundations, and multilateral institutions must all work together.

The Global Business Dialogue on Electronic Commerce (GBDe), a group of more than 60 CEOs and board members of companies located in more than 24 countries throughout the world, applauds the G-8's willingness to commit to bridging the digital divide, and we look forward to working with the newly created DOT Force.

As CEOs of companies prominently engaged in e-commerce, we know first-hand that private-public cooperation is vitally needed to encourage robust growth of the Internet and extend its benefits to consumers and citizens everywhere.

Industry leaders in e-commerce, working in concert with governments, are best positioned to make the promise of Internet "connectivity" a global reality.

To achieve this objective, GBDe has established a Digital Bridges Task Force to make recommendations for addressing the chasm between those that are reaping the benefits of new technology and those left behind.

The task force will draw upon GBDe's recommendations to help determine the best ways to address digital divide issues, and to serve as a clearinghouse to identify the member initiatives that are most successful.

GBDe's Digital Bridges initiative promises to help governments address the critical challenges presented by the global digital divide. Our plan envisions working closely with both individual nations and regional associations such as ASEAN.

Our message is clear: It is imperative to swiftly span the digital divide with Internet connectivity, e-commerce, e-education, and e-partnerships.

Building digital bridges will encourage investment in Internet infrastructure and directly and indirectly create new and better jobs for millions of people.

By assisting developing nations to cross these bridges, we can help to create a new world - more peaceful, prosperous, and connected - in which the dogs of war are less likely to be unleashed and illness and poverty can be vastly reduced.

*Cobus Stofberg serves as regional co-chair for Europe and Africa on GBDe's Business Steering Committee. He is CEO of MIH, a South African-headquartered company that provides pay media technology and services in more than 50 countries.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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