November 16, 2005
by Claudia Rosett
If Paul Revere were alive today, he'd have his midnight work cut out for him. Most likely he'd be spreading the alarm not on horseback, but by Internet: The U.N. is coming! The U.N. is coming!
The United Nations' so-called World Summit on the Information Society opens today in Tunis, Tunisia, proposing to set up U.N. sway over the Internet under the slogan of bridging the "digital divide." But that's the wrong metaphor. This three-day jamboree is a U.N. turf grab: the latest case of the U.N. misinterpreting its noble mandate to promote peace as a license to take a piece of anything it can get.
For anyone who cares about the vast freedoms and opportunities afforded by the Internet--for pajama-clad bloggers, for journalists, for businessmen and especially for people in the poorest countries--it is time for a call to arms. Sen. Norm Coleman, whose investigations into U.N. corruption have provided him with more insight than most into the cracks and chasms of that aging institution, has already warned in The Wall Street Journal against the possibility of Tunis becoming a "digital Munich." Whether America retains control over the root directory or some other setup ultimately evolves, the clear bottom line right now is that allowing the U.N. to involve itself in these questions is the wrong answer. A U.N. unable even to audit its own accounts or police its own peacekeepers has no business making even a twitch toward control of the Internet.
Worse, the corruption and incompetence at U.N. headquarters, however disturbing, are the least of the problems linked to the U.N.'s bid to control interconnectivity. The deeper trouble is that the U.N. has embraced the same tyrants who in the name of helping the downtrodden are now seeking via Internet control to tread them down some more.
That is hardly the kind of information, however, that U.N. organizers of this Tunis turf grab are about to share. The U.N. Web site for this event goes heavy on high-tech doo-dads, and very light on the highly relevant big picture. For instance, the site includes two scroll bars. One shows select news coverage of the summit. The other shows funding contributions from various quarters, including the governments of Syria, Libya and Saudi Arabia, all distinguished as perennial members of Freedom House's list of the world most repressive regimes. Except the U.N. site doesn't make mention of the censorship and brutal internal repression of these regimes--only of their participation, and their money.
As usual, the U.N. for reasons sadly unrelated to actual performance, is styling itself as the champion of the poorest people, in the poorest countries. (This is the same U.N. that still hasn't repaid or even apologized to the people of Iraq for the billions worth of their national assets that were grafted, stolen and wasted under U.N. supervision in the Oil for Food program). In the face of mounting public concern over the Tunis summit, Secretary-General Kofi Annan betook himself recently to the pages of the Washington Post to argue that the main aim is "to ensure that poor countries get the full benefits that new information and communication technologies--including the Internet--can bring to economic and social development." Mr. Annan concluded with what I suppose was meant to be a clarion call: "I urge all stakeholders to come to Tunis ready to bridge the digital divide," etc., etc.
What Mr. Annan evidently does not care to understand, and after his zillion-year career at the U.N. probably never will, is that for purposes of helping the poor, the problem is not a digital divide. It is not the bytes, gigs, blogs and digital wing-dings that define that terrible line between the haves and the have-nots. These are symptoms of the real difference, which we would do better to call the dictatorial divide.
In free societies, all sorts of good things flourish, including technology and highly productive uses of the Internet. In despotic systems, human potential withers and dies, strangled by censorship, starved by central controls, and rotted by the corruption that inevitably accompanies such arrangements. That poisonous mix is what prevents the spread of prosperity in Africa, and blocks peace in the Middle East, and access to computers, or for that matter, food, in North Korea (which is of course sending a delegate to Tunis).
But never mind the realities, as long as Mr. Annan and his entourage see an opportunity for more U.N. turf, job patronage, global clout and funding (including the prospect of a "ka-ching" for the U.N. cash register every time someone logs on). Leading the charge, with policy documents posted on the U.N. information summit site, are such terrorist-breeding blogger-jailing regimes as those of Iran and Saudi Arabia, and such millennial pioneers of backward motion on free speech as Belarus and Russia. China's rulers, who have recently been availing themselves of modern technology to censor the Chinese word for "democracy" out of Internet traffic, and to track down and punish its users, have been toiling away to add their two cents to this summit. Sudan, better known for genocide than free speech, has registered to set up a pavilion. Were Saddam Hussein still in power in Iraq, as Mr. Annan tried to arrange, the odds are good that a front company for his regime, with U.N. blessing, would be setting up a booth in Tunis as well.
From the same U.N. that in 2003 brought us Libya chairing the Human Rights Commission, there is of course the usual U.N. tragicomic touch of holding this summit in a dictatorship such as Tunisia, a country highlighted by Human Rights Watch this week as a place that "continues to jail individuals for expressing their opinions on the Internet and suppress Web sites critical of the government." That's from the press release accompanying a far more ample 144-page report entitled "False Freedom: Online Censorship in the Middle East and North Africa," which details obstacles placed in the way of Internet access, and penalties doled out to those who defy them, in places such as Iran, Syria, Egypt and Tunisia itself.
Somewhere among the crowd now aiming to rewire the world out of Tunis are no doubt a fair number of genuinely well-intentioned people. Somewhere down the line, if the U.N. Internet grab goes ahead, they, like the rest of us, will end trying to exercise their rights to get online--and asking themselves what went so wrong.
This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal Europe on November 16, 2005.
Claudia Rosett was formerly an adjunct fellow with the Hudson Institute.
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