A senior United Nations official today urged participants at the Internet Governance Forum to harness the many ways in which the Internet can help in attaining the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on poverty, hunger, disease and other ills.

Sha Zukang, Under Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, told the forum's opening in Vilnius, Lithuania, that its timing was fortuitous given the UN summit to be held next week in New York, where around 140 heads of State and government and others will review progress towards the MDGs.

“There are so many ways that the Internet can help developing countries reach them,” Mr. Sha said in a statement to the forum, read out on his behalf by Jomo Kwame Sundaram, the Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development.

“Through both simple and sophisticated techniques, the Internet can help eradicate poverty, educate people, sustain the environment and create healthier populations,” he said. “Let us recommit ourselves at this forum to identifying the barriers that prevent stakeholders from using the Internet for development and suggest ways to bring down those barriers.”

The four-day forum will explore how the Internet can benefit people worldwide and how Internet governance can be a means to achieving development for all as expressed in internationally agreed targets such as the MDGs.

Participants from governments, international organizations, the private sector, civil society and the Internet community will also discuss issues of security, openness and privacy, access and diversity, Internet governance for development and critical Internet resources, the emerging issue of “cloud computing,” and the way forward for Internet governance.

In his statement, Mr. Sha noted that some 1.8 billion people were now using the Internet, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), with a sharp increase in all regions over the past few years. There had also been an increase in the use of mobile broadband in developing countries, where around 60 per cent of people have cellular telephones. This, he said, was a cause for celebration.

On the other hand, “while developing countries are making progress, developed countries are moving even faster,” he said, encouraging forum participants to brainstorm on how to rectify that disparity and come up with strategies for expanding Internet and broadband access.

The forum's mandate will expire this year. A report by the UN Secretary-General, to be considered by the General Assembly during its current session, recommends extending it for an additional five years, with some improvements.