Delegates from nearly 175 countries have met at the United Nations in Geneva to discuss ways to help close the "digital gap" between rich and poor nations.
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Around 40 heads of states are attending the first of a two-phase summit, with the second half to follow in 2005 in Tunisia.
"This summit is unique," said Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the UN. While most of the UN global conferences focus on threats, this one offers an opportunity to consider "how best to use a global asset", he added.
The digital gap, Annan said, is actually several gaps in one: the technological divide relating to infrastructure; the content divide involving web-based information - much of it in English - that is "not relevant to the real needs of people and is, at times, crowding out local voices and views"; a gender divide, with "women and girls enjoying less access to information than men and boys"; and a commercial divide with e-commerce "linking some countries and companies ever more closely together, while others run the risk of marginalisation".
Some experts view the digital divide as one of the "biggest non-tariff barriers to world trade", the secretary-general said.
Annan called both government leaders and the business community, to make these gaps disappear.
"The future of the IT industry lies not so much in the developed world, where markets are saturated, as in reaching the billions of people in the develop world who remain untouched by the information revolution," he said.
However, he conceded that while technology can improve the lives of everyone on the planet, "building an open, empowering information society is a social, economic and, ultimately, political challenge".
John Blau writes for IDG News Service