Global standards for the global information society
Today, we have access to more information than ever before, and, as the cost to access that information plummets, its audience increases. Sociologists no longer refer to the technology, computer or even the electronic age. The society that this generation is building is the Information Society, promising fundamental change in all aspects of our lives. But for its benefits to be truly equitably distributed, its reach must be global.
Digital electronics – computer networks, digital TV, 3G phones and a host of related, hardware, software, and services – provide the key building blocks for the Information Society. Collectively, they are known as Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). Without ICTs – the technologies that are essential to disseminating information and/or knowledge electronically – a global Information Society would not be possible. ICTs have a direct impact on almost every aspect of social development – from education through healthcare, public administration, economics, finance and banking, commerce and business, international relations, and technology transfer to poverty reduction.
ICTs mostly had their origins in mature industrial societies, and now play an increasingly important role in helping developing countries and economies in transition to fulfil their potential. The challenge is how best to employ the tools of the Information Society to achieve development goals on a global scale, maximizing the benefits while minimizing obstacles and barriers.
Key to making ICTs work for developing countries are the international standards created by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). International standards simplify the use of existing and new technologies, reduce costs and complexity, open markets and foster broader access to products and services. In today’s age of converging digital technologies, the three organizations are working ever more closely across the entire ICT spectrum.
International standards are agreements on best practices that are shared and adopted worldwide. They result from a process incorporating six principles defined by the World Trade Organization (WTO) – they are open, transparent, impartial and consensus-based, effective and relevant, coherent, and have a development dimension.
The development dimension is critical to bridging what is often termed the “Digital Divide” between the “haves” and “have-nots” of ICT and information. The potential benefits of international standards for developing economies and those in transition include significantly better opportunities for developing local industries and internal markets. They help lower costs, broaden the choice of partners and suppliers, create products with worldwide market coverage and acceptance, and expand export opportunities by reducing technical barriers to trade. Participation in the standards making processes of IEC, ISO, and ITU gives stakeholders the opportunity to shape standards according to their views and specific needs – whether in the developed or the developing world.
This year, the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) sets out not only to address a broad range of social, economic and technical questions but also to draw up an action plan to bridge the Digital Divide. ISO, the IEC and ITU are actively involved in the preparatory process for WSIS to ensure that the critical role played by international standards in offering the best tools to support both growth of the Information Society and more equitable development is fully appreciated by the heads of state that will be attending the Summit in Geneva, Switzerland from 10-12 December 2003.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America estimates that it took 70 years to span the radio divide and 40 to overcome the television divide. ISO, the IEC and ITU aim to ensure that international standards bring about a far swifter end to today’s Digital Divide.
- Dr. Sei-ichi TAKAYANAGI, President of the IEC
- Mr. Oliver SMOOT, President of ISO
- Mr. Yoshio UTSUMI, Secretary-General of ITU