Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations (UN) delivered the opening speech marking the start of the World Summit on the Information Society on Wednesday.

"This summit is unique," Annan said. While most of the UN global conferences focus on threats, this one offers an opportunity to consider "how best to use a global asset."

Delegates from 175 countries are meeting in Geneva to discuss ways to help close the "digital gap" between rich and poor nations. Around 40 heads of states are attending the first of a two-phase summit, with the second half to follow in 2005 in Tunis, Tunisia.

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 ecommerce "linking some countries and companies ever more closely together, while others run the risk of marginalization."

In fact, some experts view the digital divide as one of the "biggest non-tariff barriers to world trade," the secretary-general said.

Annan called not only on government leaders at the summit "to produce acts of political will" to make these gaps disappear over time, but also on the business community.

"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 developing world who remain untouched by the information revolution," he said.

In his closing remarks, however, Annan 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."