European governments, including that of the UK, have pledged to do more to spread the internet's benefits to parts of society that are at risk of being left behind by rapid technological advances.

Government ministers from 34 European countries meeting yesterday in Riga, Latvia, signed up to a pan-European drive to use IT to help people overcome economic, social, educational, territorial or disability-related disadvantages. The effort targets groups such as the elderly, the disabled and the unemployed.

The Commission aims by 2010 to halve the number of people with no internet access, boost the reach of broadband in rural areas to 90 percent and ensure that all government websites are accessible by the public.

The aims form part of the European Union's “i2010” strategy, the digital economy component of the EU's relaunched Lisbon agenda for boosting jobs and growth and spurring innovation.

The ministers agreed to see if new laws are needed to improve internet access.

A lack of affordability, access, skills and motivation is holding back between 30 percent and 40 percent of Europeans from taking advantage of the internet, the Commission said. Despite broadband subscriptions growing by 60 percent last year, and overtaking the US for the first time, fast internet access is available to only one in four families.

At present only 10 percent of people over the age of 65 use the internet, while only 3 percent of public websites fully comply with minimum web accessibility standards, the Commission said. Poor web design by government offices and departments is an everyday problem for the 15 percent of disabled Europeans.

The 34 governments represented in Riga yesterday included the EU's 25 member states, plus Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Turkey, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Iceland, Norway and Bosnia and Herzegovina.