Remarks to UNESCO WSIS+10 Ministerial Panel
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Fellow delegates, distinguished guests, on behalf of the United States let me begin by extending my country’s thanks to UNESCO for hosting this panel as part of its WSIS review event. We welcome this opportunity to review the progress the international community has made toward the ambitious goals established ten years ago at the World Summit on Information Society. Under Director General Bokova’s leadership, UNESCO has been a global exemplar on so many of these issues, from promoting Internet access for all, to protecting freedom of expression. And it has done so by seeking the involvement of all stakeholders, whether they come from governments, civil society, academia, or the private sector. The United States applauds this vision and leadership, and pledges our continued support for UNESCO’s endeavors both on these issues and on the so many others where UNESCO is working to improve lives worldwide.
A decade ago, the nations of the world came together at the World Summit on Information Society to chart a course for expanding the benefits of information and communication technologies to all the world’s peoples. We reached consensus on the noble goal of bridging the digital divide, and pledged to work together to harness the power of the Internet and other technologies for development and for enhancing the human condition. We adopted a vision that promoted political and economic freedom for all the world’s citizens, by increasing their opportunity to access and utilize information to improve their lives. With myriad advances in information and communications technology since then, its potential as a tool for economic and social development is greater today than many of us could have imagined just ten years ago. These technologies have transformed our globe, fundamentally altered our channels of communication, upended the way we learn and do business, and changed how we live our lives.
Today, farmers and fisherman in remote rural communities can access information on weather forecasts, do research on crop and soil science, and keep abreast of up-to-date market and commodity prices, ensuring higher yields and better incomes, and breaking down barriers to their participation in the global economy. Students young and old, in communities far from educational institutions, are enrolling in distance learning programs, bringing education to communities previously locked out of its potential. Scientists and engineers, no longer divided by language or distance, are realizing new advances and building patterns of international cooperation by posting research and collaborating online. And doctors and hospitals are expanding their use of telemedicine, to bring healthcare to even the most remote locales, at a cost that more of the world’s poor can afford. By the numbers alone, the gains are incredible. Today, there are nearly 2.5 billion regular Internet users, and worldwide mobile phone subscriptions exceeded six billion in 2012, with more than three-quarters of those in the developing world.
Indeed, the opportunities offered globally by today’s information and communication technologies were the stuff of the dreamers ten years ago at WSIS. ICTs have contributed to the goal of poverty eradication, the creation of wealth and economic mobility, and the promotion of democratic participation, social and economic development, linguistic diversity, and cultural identity. Yet change and evolution continues to occur at a faster and faster pace each year, and the only thing we can be sure of is that we cannot predict the next remarkable innovation that will once again change the way we live, work, and learn.
Even with all this progress, this rapid-fire evolution of the information and communication technologies we came together a decade ago to harness for the greater good, the principles our nations adopted at WSIS remain just as valid today as they were ten years back. Let me briefly address two of these principles: bridging the digital divide, and creating knowledge societies.
We agreed ten years ago to collaboratively work toward a global information society, a world in which information and communication technologies help cultivate the economic and social environments that fully promote our sustainable development goals. To this end, my own country’s experience, and that of so many others, has exemplified how competition stimulates innovation, and how the private sector and its investment in cutting-edge technologies are often the catalyst for the creation of “innovation societies.”
At the same time, we cannot deny that our progress toward bridging the digital divide and promoting a global innovation society would have been seriously hampered, had we not ensured that our international telecommunications infrastructure remains open and accessible to all. The power of information and communications technologies to spur economic and social development has depended on the ability of people everywhere to engage with one another, to create, utilize, and share information, to achieve their fullest potential.
But in too many places, the free exchange of ideas and information still is blocked by governments, with citizens facing obstacles to communication, and fearing governmental retaliation for the information they share. Yet these censors not only impinge upon individuals’ freedom of expression and right to seek, impart, and receive information; their obstruction of the free exchange that lies at the core of the Internet also hampers the economic development our nations all pledged to pursue at WSIS ten years ago. Tomorrow’s science and technology breakthroughs will not happen in closed societies; they will happen in places where people are allowed to explore new ideas, or think unconventional thoughts. There is a critical and direct link between the free flow of information on the Internet and other ICTs and the achievement of the economic and social goals we have set. We will never succeed in bridging the digital divide, and therefore in fully harnessing the power of information and communication technologies, if we allow the shrinking “access divide” to be replaced by a growing “censorship divide.”
For our part, the United States remains committed to expanding the global reach of information and communication technologies, both by increasing access and by challenging censorship, and to pursuing these goals in parallel so that everyone can benefit from these new connective technologies.
The second part of our collective vision at WSIS was to promote global knowledge societies, whereby citizens from all our nations can collaborate to create usable knowledge that improves their everyday lives. To accomplish this, however, we must work together to build not just individual capacity, but also institutional capacity.
We accomplish the former when we promote citizens’ digital literacy, helping all to learn how to harness the power of the Internet to promote positive change in their own lives through training and skills upgrades. But institutional capacity is essential as well to meet the demand of constantly changing information and communication technologies and markets. The United States is working on both these fronts. The Federal Communication Commission’s National Broadband Plan includes education and other programs to promote Americans’ digital literacy. And we are working to open up 500 megahertz of spectrum over the next decade, to be deployed for mobile broadband, a resource we expect to spur investment, economic growth, and job creation, given the growing demand by both businesses and consumers for wireless broadband services.
If we are to build global knowledge societies, we also must encourage public-private partnerships between governments and other key stakeholders, and work to expand access to the Internet’s most useful information. The United States is working with public universities to greatly increase the availability of high-value educational content free of charge, including courses from some of our country’s most prominent universities which can be taken online from anywhere in the globe with an Internet connection. We also have partnered with the private sector to build mirror Internet sites, improving availability of local content in a variety of languages. And we are working to break down barriers to Internet access by persons with disabilities, so that all people can reap the benefits.
I want to take a moment to applaud UNESCO’s work in these areas, especially its efforts to expand the development and use of open educational resources. UNESCO also has been a leader in catalyzing stakeholders to expand cultural and linguistic diversity online, encouraging more content in more languages, so that more of the world’s peoples may benefit from the Internet’s vast information resources. The partnership between UNESCO and ICANN is an example of the commendable work being done to expand people’s access to the Internet in their own language and script. And UNESCO’s work with the OECD and the Internet Society on research linking infrastructure, Internet access, and local content, should help to bring the benefits of the Internet to even more people in even more countries worldwide.
Let me make clear that there is an essential principle underlying all that I have said today, and underlying the goals that we all agreed to at WSIS a decade ago. To truly build global knowledge societies, to effectively bridge the access and censorship divides, we must work to break down barriers to access and information exchange among all the world’s peoples, and we must resist efforts to erect new barriers. Fostering true understanding and collaboration requires the free exchange of information and ideas among peoples. The immense power of the Internet as a tool for positive transformation and shared gain is inherently tied to its open, bottom-up nature; a network is only as strong as its users and as their ability to connect with one another. To this end, let me reiterate the United States’ unwavering commitment to an Internet governance model that is people-centered, bottom-up, multi-stakeholder, and transparent. Governments have an important voice in these discussions – but so do civil society groups, academia, the private sector, and the Internet technical community. Those voices are what give the Internet its great potential, and if we are to achieve the goals we set out at WSIS, we must ensure that they continue to be heard.
In closing, let me thank again UNESCO, not only for hosting this first WSIS+10 review event, but also for the work it has done in these areas. The United States similarly supports the continued work of other UN agencies, including ITU and UNCTAD, in implementing WSIS Action Lines, and the critical work of the CSTD in coordinating UN efforts on implementation and review of the WSIS+10 goals. We look forward to the 2015 CSTD report to the General Assembly and to the autumn 2014 ITU meeting.
Working together, we have accomplished much over the past decade, but we could have achieved even more had too much of our time and resources not been spent engaging in broad Internet policy debates, including around Internet governance, rather than working to achieve the goals we set for ourselves at WSIS. The international community and all our peoples – especially the far too many who are still waiting to reap the benefits of ICTs – would be better served if governments, through this WSIS+10 review process, refocused our attention back onto the essential challenges that birthed the WSIS in the first place, and worked to ensure that the benefits of information and communication technologies can be realized by all the world’s peoples.
It is an economic issue, as an open, reliable, and trusted Internet sparks greater ability to leverage its benefits, and greater efforts in innovation.
It is a social issue, as a thriving media environment has become critical for an informed citizenry.
And it is as well a human rights issue, because all people have the right to associate with those whom they choose, peacefully assemble, and freely express their ideas and opinions, both offline and online, without the threat or fear of persecution or punishment.
As we look back upon the past decade and ahead to the next, let us take this opportunity afforded by the tenth anniversary of the WSIS to rededicate ourselves to its noble goals, harnessing information and communication technology to improve the lives of all members of the human family.