European governments have pledged to do more to spread the internet's benefits to parts of society that are at risk of being left behind by rapid technological advances.

Government ministers from 34 European countries meeting in Riga, Latvia on Monday signed up to a pan-European drive to use IT to help people overcome economic, social, educational, territorial or disability-related disadvantages. The effort targets groups such as the elderly, the disabled and the unemployed.

The Commission aims by 2010 to halve the number of people with no internet access, boost the reach of broadband in rural areas to 90 per cent and ensure that all government websites are accessible to the public.

The aims form part of the European Union's "i2010" strategy, the digital economy component of the EU's re-launched Lisbon agenda for boosting jobs and growth and spurring innovation.

The ministers also agreed to see if new laws are needed to improve internet access.

A lack of affordability, access, skills and motivation is holding back 30-40 per cent of Europeans from taking advantage of the internet, the Commission said. Despite broadband subscriptions growing by 60 per cent last year, and overtaking the US for the first time, fast internet access is only available to one in four families.

At present only 10 per cent of people over the age of 65 use the internet, while only 3 per cent of public websites fully comply with minimum web accessibility standards, the Commission said. Poor web design by government offices and departments is an everyday problem for the 15 per cent of Europeans with disabilities.

The 34 governments represented in Riga included the EU's 25 member states and Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Turkey, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Iceland, Norway, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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