Does technology damage our culture or enhance our lives - particularly when so many in the world are excluded from developments such as the Internet?

That question, including technology's impact on the environment, government, personal privacy, education and in closing the gap between the rich and poor, was the topic of a panel discussion featuring executives of leading IT companies and industry observers in Cannes yesterday at the Gartner Group's European Symposium/ITxpo '99.

British Telecom (BT) was also put under pressure on its call charges and metered Internet access.

Overall, the speakers, all of whom make their living from the IT industry, spoke optimistically about the changes that technology could promote in these areas.

A combination of the Internet, call centres and International Red Cross databases helped reunite 2,000 families who fled warfare in Kosovo, said Sir Peter Bonfield, chairman and CEO of BT.

"Technology does not damage society, it makes it better," said Bonfield, who also gave other international examples of benefits of IT including a positive affect on the environment.

"Every Web site saves a tree and every email saves a twig," quipped Bonfield.

But it wasn't all so jovial for the BT boss. Gartner analyst Andy Kyte challenged BT's Bonfield on the issue of unmetered local access for Internet service, suggesting that if local calls were not charged on a per-minute basis throughout Europe, the Internet and e-commerce would grow more rapidly.

"There is no such thing as a free lunch," replied Bonfield, calling the issue complicated and claiming that US users actually pay the same as do Europeans for Internet access.

The growing numbers of fee-free ISPs (Internet service providers) throughout Europe mean that going online here is just as inexpensive, Bonfield said. Sweden, for example, has one of the highest Internet penetration rates in the world and telephone calls there are metered, he added.

Bonfield also defended BT's own call charges, saying that the company has provided reduced-cost access for schools.

Other presenters took on the same positive tone. On stage with Bonfield were Pier Carlo Falotti, Oracle's executive vice president for Europe, Middle East and Africa; Peter Sissons, a BBC newsreader who moderated the panel; Don Zereski, chief operating officer of France's Groupe Bull and Professor Kirk Hanson, a senior lecturer at Stanford University's business administration program. Joining the speakers were Gartner analysts, Kyte and Peter Sondergaard.

Positive assessments, such as Bonfiels's, were overshadowed throughout the presentations by two concerns: the growing divide between those who have access to technology and telephony and those who do not, and questions about how to protect the privacy of individuals.

"If the world were a village of 100 people," said Bonfield, "only 14 would have a phone and only one would be online."

Oracle's Falotti agreed with the assessment, but blamed poor education rather than economic factors for much of the problem. "The vast proportion of people have to be capable of using technology," he said.

"People are resisting change," Falotti said, speaking of his disappointment at the lack of success of programs designed to put computer technology in schools in Europe. "People are scared to death that they have to learn something."

Possibly, Europe's leadership in mobile and smartcard technology will help it catch up or even "leap frog" over the US, said Zereski of Bull, a maker of semiconductors used in smartcards.

Privacy, generally regarded as a more important issue in Europe than in the US, will have to be solved by corporations, rather than by governments, said Stanford's Hanson.

In the US, said Hanson, employees and governments embrace the concept that monitoring of email and other communications is essential to performance monitoring. Those attitudes are slowly shifting to Europe as well, he said. He urged Europeans to not accept the industry opinion that privacy is dead, however, saying that without privacy guarantees, electronic commerce will stall.

Gartner's Kyte spoke of the English-language-dominated Web as a threat to local and national languages as more people go online. Oracle's Falotti, who is Italian, disagreed. Falotti pointed to the growing resurgence of local dialects throughout Europe at the same time as English is being spoken by increasing numbers. "You want to be part of the world and part of a small team," said Falotti.

Most of the panelists agreed that the information society presents big challenges for governments, with some even saying that the role of governments will diminish and the responsibility of corporations will increase.

"Are governments weakened when they cannot control information flow and cannot tax e-commerce?" asked the BBC's Sissons. Yes, said Gartner's Kyte, "governments are mesmerized by e-commerce. They set up working groups that highlight how powerless they really are. They are used to a much slower decision making process."

Stanford's Kirk agreed: "Governments are weakening and corporations are suddenly placed in a more powerful position."

Governments and trade unions are both stuck in the past, said Oracle's Falotti and both institutions must be more forward looking in order to be part of the solution.

Only dictatorial governments are threatened by the information society, said BT's Bonfield, pointing out that it was the European Union that forced national carriers to open up for competition.