Co-ordinated intra-government attempts to develop a strategy to bridge the digital divide are being hampered by disagreements on how to manage the Internet and protect freedom of expression.

Negotiators from nearly 200 countries worked towards a compromise on these differences in a preparatory meeting to the three-day World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which begins tomorrow in Geneva. However, they failed to agree on a way to fund the Internet's expansion in developing countries.

In a move to diffuse one of the more explosive issues, the negotiators agreed to ask the UN about establishing a committee to investigate Internet management and report back by 2005, when a second summit is scheduled to be held in Tunis, Tunisia, according to a spokesman of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN agency organizing the event.

Several governments are seeking broad controls over the Internet, and are demanding that an international agency, such as the ITU, take control of Internet management. However, industrialized countries, led by the US, oppose the idea. They want the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to remain responsible for controlling many of the Internet's core systems.

Negotiators also agreed to include in the draft documents wording that maintains a commitment to freedom of expression, according to the ITU spokesman.

Countries such as China, which have clamped down on Internet media, have been eager to restrict references to press freedom.

A key stumbling block in a summit initially organized to help bridge the "digital divide" remains funding. At issue is whether richer nations should subsidize Internet expansion in poorer nations and if so, how much.

In particular, African countries are calling for the creation of a "digital solidarity fund" to pay for extending the Internet into remote villages, but most European nations, Japan and the US prefer to use existing development aid money.

The declaration also calls on governments to collaborate more closely in such areas as improving Internet security and finding ways to deal with spam and junk email.