UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called for the Internet and information technology to be used to help build a better life for people in some of the world's poorest countries.
Annan warned the 170 countries and some 23,000 scheduled participants from government and industry at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) that, "for far too many people, the gains remain out of reach".
"There is a tremendous yearning, not for technology per se (in itself), but for what technology can make possible," he told the opening ceremony in Tunis, urging participants to "respond to that thirst".
"This summit must be a summit of solutions" to build "bridges for a better life" in poor countries.
The UN-organised summit in Tunis is being attended by a brace of government leaders, mainly from Africa, but only a few from rich nations.
Host President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali said he hoped the gathering "will mark a truly new beginning for a just, balanced and supportive information society."
The summit was also marked by sharp warnings that freedom of speech was a core component of a modern information society, following incidents involving journalists and campaigners in the Tunisian capital in recent days.
"For myself, it goes without question that here in Tunis, inside these walls and outside, anyone can discuss quite freely," said Swiss President Samuel Schmid, sitting alongside the Tunisian head of state.
"For us it is one of the conditions 'sine qua non' (essential) for the success of the international conference," he added.
Seven Tunisian hunger strikers also made a public appeal to Annan to defend freedom of speech, while Iranian Nobel Peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi called for international monitoring to stop political repression on the Internet.
Tunisian authorities have said two suspects are being questioned by an investigating magistrate in connection with the assault Friday on a French journalist. Groups advocating freedom of speech said they had been harassed.
The gathering's ambition to boost economic and social development in poor countries revolves around a pledge under the UN's Millennium Development Goals to connect all the villages of the world to the Internet by 2015.
"It is striking that the 400,000 citizens of Luxembourg have more Internet access than the 800 million residents in Africa," the UN Under Secretary for Communications, Shashi Tharoor, told reporters.
Some 800,000 "villages," mainly in poor nations, still need to be connected in the next decade, according to the UN's International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
The cost of the effort, one billion dollars, represents one percent of the annual global investment in mobile telephone connections.
"The hurdle here is more political than financial," Annan told the summit Wednesday.
"These assets -- these bridges to a better life -- can be made universally affordable and accessible," he added.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and Senegalese counterpart Abdoulaye Wade appealed for more backing for a "Digital Solidarity Fund" that has so far garnered 5.5 million euros.
Obasanjo said the global economy was now driven by information technology.
"Unless those that are now excluded from the benefits of the information revolution are brought on board, our efforts to achieve sustainable development as outlined in the Millenium Development Goals, will continue to elude us," he added.
Rich nations believe that developing nations must also develop the business and regulatory environment in their own countries to attract private investment and some existing aid.
"The challenge to the developing world is now to make sure they have the infrastructure, rules, legal processes and the market systems to attract the investment of the technologies that we see on display at the summit," said US Assistant Secretary for Commerce Michael Gallagher.