Elements and Principles of the Information Society

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Elements and principles of the information society


This paper on “Elements and Principles of the Information Society”, was prepared by Claudia Sarrocco (claudia.sarrocco@itu.int), under the supervision of Tim Kelly, Head, Strategy and Policy Unit. We would like to thank Joanna Goodrick, who edited the paper, and Yves Courrier, who provided us with his useful insights. This study is intended to provide a background resource for the forthcoming World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), and is not an official document of the WSIS preparatory process. Comments can be sent to inputs-wsis@itu.int.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and may not necessarily reflect the opinions of the International Telecommunication Union or its members. More details can be found on the ITU website at: www.itu.int/osg/spu/wsis-themes

Table of contents

Introduction 4

1 Vision 4

2 Access: reliable, affordable and secure 7

3 Applications 15

4 Conclusions: building the society of the future 18

Bibliography 19


Ever since the 1980s, ‘information society’ has been one of the key terms used to describe today’s world. It has been employed variously as a social, cultural, economical and technical concept, and is typically seen as the natural development of the European liberal tradition, or of American technological modernity. Whether welcome or undesired, the information society is here, and it is therefore essential to clearly define its fundamental characteristics and principles.

This document is based on a number of declarations of principles and reports on information and communication technologies (ICT) and the information society.1 Principles have been organized under three main sections, depending on their purpose: the “vision” which includes the main common principles at the basis of the information society; “access” where more specific requirements for the establishment of the information society are listed; and “applications”, illustrating the many dimensions of the information society. A synthesis of the main points is provided in the table in Annex 1.


ICTs represent to today’s world what industrial machines represented during the industrial revolution; they have revolutionized ways of working, transformed the economy, had an irreversible impact on the way people live, and have shaped a new “information” society.

Information and communication technologies are seen by various different bodies of the international community as being, inter alia:

  • a bridge between developed and developing countries [DOI and DOT Force]

  • a tool for economic and social development [WTDC 1994, Seoul Declaration, ADF 02]

  • an engine for growth [The Missing Link Report, 1984];

  • the central pillar for the construction of a global knowledge-based economy and society [Florianopolis Declaration]; 

  • an opportunity for countries to free themselves from the tyranny of geography [ESCAP 2000].

The fundamental role of ICTs in the information and knowledge society is widely recognized, as is the fact that there is unequal distribution and sharing of this technology and of access to information. From this comes the first and most important principle for the information society: universal service.

1.1Universal service and universal access

In an environment where information and knowledge are crucial to social and economic development, access to information and the means to use that information needs to be extended to everyone, everywhere. For this reason, universal access or universal service are a fundamental point of all declarations, in particular with reference to the needs of developing countries, where the information society both opens up great potential for development and poses new risks, widening disparities between and within countries. 2

Universal service is the long-term objective of making communication facilities available to every member of society on an individual or household basis, and it is used in particular in the regulatory-legislative framework to indicate the obligation of telecommunication operators to provide their services to the entire population.3

However, the objective of universal service is still far from turning into reality in developing countries, and the universal service concept has been complemented by the concept of universal access, i.e. the opportunity for everyone, at home or at work, to be within a reasonable distance of a telephone.4 In fact, to connect the majority of the poor, especially those living in rural and remote areas (around 80 per cent of world’s poor are rural dwellers), requires innovative approaches, including a shift from individual connectivity, which has been prevalent in developed countries, to community connectivity. Group or community connectivity, and the establishment of public access points,5 will enable users to have access to information and knowledge at minimal cost in areas which are not currently served, so that, in the terms of the Missing link report, the whole of mankind will be within an easy reach of a telephone, fax and Internet access. Public access points are indeed the first step toward universal service, and also contribute to raising public awareness about the benefits of communication and information technology—possibly even providing opportunities to acquire computer skills and training.

The necessity of universal access to information services is stated in several declarations, which stress the need to broaden access to and use of ICTs, declaring that everyone, everywhere should be enabled to participate in the global information society.

The term “universal access”, however, sometimes also assume social, economic and cultural connotations, encapsulating issues concerning equality of opportunities, literacy, diversity of content, and so on. This connotation principle alone would appear to be too vague and could lose its force as a basic principle in the information society, especially considering that there are other principles (illustrated below) specifically dealing with the above-mentioned issues. Universal access should therefore be interpreted as material and physical access to information infrastructure and services.6

Lack of infrastructure, according to a Statement from Developing Countries in the DOT Force, “[is] one of the major challenges developing countries have to face in their efforts to access ICTs as a tool for development”.7 The principle of “universality” should therefore be limited to the need to develop this infrastructure.

In addition to the need for universal service, several declarations mention the necessity of giving particular attention to the development of telecommunication infrastructures in rural and remote areas, where the telecommunication system is inadequate to sustain essential services—or where there is no service at all, but which are often home to a high percentage of the population. This is especially true in developing and least developed countries, with the latter requiring special attention.

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