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Al Gore's 8,000 kilometres: the distances of the Information Society


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Al Gore's 8,000 kilometres: the distances of the Information Society

Alcimar Silva de Queiroz

"I have come here, 8,000 kilometres from my home, to ask you to help create a Global Information Infrastructure (...) The development of the GII must be a cooperative effort among government and people. It cannot be dictated or built by a single country, It must be a democratic effort. And the distributed intelligence of the GII will spread participatory democracy."

-- Al Gore, 1994

In a speech delivered at the first World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC), exactly ten years ago in Buenos Aires (1994), the former US Vice-President under Clinton's leadership, Al Gore, quoted Nathaniel Hawthorne, Antonio Machado and Thomas Jefferson when stating that he had flown thousands of miles to ask for the support of the members of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in the creation of what he named the Global Information Infrastructure[1]. This term, which was turned into Global Information Society in the final official Declaration of the event, defined in fact what at that time was merely a plan for the projection into the international scenario of the National Information Infrastructure, implemented in earlier years in the American territories[2]. Although Gore's speech at the WTDC can be regarded as a milestone in the development of this concept, the expression Information Society (IS) was coined in 1963 in Japan by Tadao Umesao[3] and taken to Europe by Simon Nora and Alan Minc in a report addressed to the French Prime Minister[4]. As a result, it was employed by the G7+Russia to substantiate the talks of the Ministerial Conference on the Information Society (Brussels, 1995) and of the Okinawa's Summit in 2000[5].

Today, the search of concepts and definitions related to this information society, in which the new communication and information processing and transmission technologies are the core of its social, economical and political relationships, is the focus of research all around the world. In particular, the effective chances of use of these technologies and the new production relationships based on informatics are key features, in development terms, of the present globalization process.

In order for us to talk about the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), it is, inter alia, central: i) to comprehend the origin and the uses of the notion of IS and how developed and developing countries are going to face it; ii) to discuss the governance of the telecommunication networks; iii) to address the participation of the civil society and private sector and their interaction within the body of the UN system, thus far centered on the relationships within and between the States. For in this lays the importance of this high-level meeting, promoted by the ITU under the auspices of the UN.

It is unquestionable that in the last decade there has been an overall liberalization of the communication sector all around the world and that, despite the speeches of democratization and economic and social development present in all the IS summits, the countries holding the property rights of ICTs (EU, US and Japan) continue to dominate the creation of software and hardware policy and regulation through laws on the intellectual property that protect, in the first place, developed countries but are eventually likely to jeopardize the technologic self-determination of developing countries.

During this period of liberalization of the national economies, the international public opinion saw the expansion, in number and importance, of the interventions of different segments of the civil society concerned with the process of democratization of the use of ICTs and access to them. The civil society (NGOs, associations, universities etc.), alongside with Least Developed Countries and Developing Countries, have formed pressure groups and began the elaboration of strategies for demanding the establishment of a more balanced dialogue about ICTs policy and regulation among States. At the WSIS, as expected, the right of vote was only granted to the governmental representatives, according to the UN protocol. But a historic step ahead was trod when the speech of the civil society was integrated in a summit of Chiefs of de State and Governments.

The records[6] of the general assemblies of the working groups for the generation of the Declaration of Principles and of the Action Plan by the Preparatory Committees (PrepCom I, II e III, intersections etc.) occurred at the initial stage of the WSIS (Geneva, 2003), can be taken as significant examples in a case study of alignments, approximations and distancing between States or groups of States. It can be patently observed from their statements that the private sector tended to agree with the positions of developed countries, as a rule conservative or even reactionary, whereas, in spite of the diversity displayed among the different countries and regions, the speeches of the civil society were aligned with the thoughts of the majority of developing and the least developed countries, concerned with the search of innovatory initiatives.

As a spectator of the WSIS, the civil society beheld particularly interesting, sometimes anedoctical, scenes of antagonist postures of the national representatives. For example, the strict sequence of American and Cuban talks in defending their respective national (and ideological) interests. Or the prompt interventions of Arab countries and of the Holy See whenever questions related to traditional principles (the women's rights or the family values) were dealt with.

There were two remarkable features in this latest WSIS: first, the fact that the summit's executive role was assigned to the ITU, the most inclusive amidst the international institutions acting in the ICTs field and, secondly, the initiative of inviting the civil society and the private sector to group of the multistakeholders, with right of intervention as negotiation actors in a summit of Chiefs of State and Governments.

From my own viewpoint, as a Brazilian and member of a developing country, I observe that we must keep the perspective of a positive result along the whole process. Albeit I agree with the civil society on the limitations highlighted in the WSIS Civil Society Declaration[7], forwarded in the final day of the Geneva phase of the WSIS, I conclude that the discussion on the event is certainly very promising. I believe that the patronage and support of the ITU and the UN system is the only chance to have, in the near future, all the parts interested in accomplishing the goals set by the Millennium Declaration, discuss side by side, as stated in the WSIS Declaration of Principle. Brazil has tried to do its part through all the people involved.

Only in this sense it is possible to positively accept Al Gore's message and understand his long journey to the south hemisphere. As far as the international telecommunications governance is concerned, of all the official documents signed since 1994, only those generated at the WSIS show a concern for broadening the range of actors and embracing the whole society and attempt to recognize Human Rights in their interdependence and indivisibility.

Perhaps the distance between North and South is larger than Gore's 8,000 kilometers and can hardly be measured in the medium term. But the Human Rights principles, if properly observed, are sufficiently vigorous to support all the actions necessary for a genuine approximation between the technology-possessing countries and us, the countries struggling for developing our own technologies. Apart from that, I regard any other approach as merely rhetorical.


CASTELL, M. The Information Age: Economy, society and Culture - End of Millennium. Blacwell Publishers: Oxford, 1998, vol. III.

NORA, S. MINC, A. L'informatisation de la Société. La Documentation Française: Paris, 1978.

UIMONEN, P. Transnational.Dynamics@Development.Net: Internet, Modernization and Globalization. Almqvist & Wiksell International: Stockholm, 2001.


[1] Available in http://www.goelzer.net/telecom/al-gore.html

[2] UIMONEN, 2001:88

[3] CASTELLS, 1998:236

[4] NORA & MINC, 1978

[5] Available in http://www.g8.utoronto.ca/summit/index.htm

[6] Available in the ITU website http://www.itu.int/wsis/

[7] Available in http://www.itu.int/wsis/docs/geneva/civil-society-declaration.pdf

Alcimar Silva de Queiroz
University of São Paulo
Faculty of Education
Department of Philosophy and History of Education
Av. Prof. Mello Moraes, 1235, bloco G, ap. 404,
Cidade Universitária, São Paulo, SP
Brazil - 05509-030
Phone: + 55 11 9563 31 69