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La Rosett: Whose internet is it anyway?

30th November 2005 - Pajamas Media

Greetings, and a quick tip: Anyone in favor of censorship and internet taxes can skip the rest of this column.

OK. For those still with me, who probably agree it is not a good idea to have Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe editing your blog and then charging you for it, it's time to talk about the great UN internet grab. Thanks to the U.S. just saying no, the UN bid to get its hands on our keyboards failed this month at the United Nations Internet conclave in Tunis. But don't drop your guard. The UN will be back. The pickings are potentially too rich, and the stakes too high, for them to resist. In case anyone has any doubts, Secretary-General Kofi Annan himself (about whom you can read more by googling his name together with “Oil-for-Food,” “Rape-by-Peacekeepers” and “Bribes-for-Procurement”) appeared in Tunis to proclaim that while the U.S. had blocked a UN takeover of the internet this time, “I think you also acknowledge the need for more international participation in discussions of Internet governance issues. So let those discussions continue.” Then came Annan's scariest line: “We in the United Nations will support this process in every way we can.”

You can bet your laptop they will. Any institution brazen enough to hold a “World Summit on the Information Society” in internet-censoring journalist-jailing Tunisia is obviously ready to try anything to get hold of the net. This initiative has been bubbling along since Tunisia first proposed it in 1998, and by now there have been enough conferences, theme papers, working groups and planning sessions so that this UN campaign has put down roots. The WSIS website is already an empire unto itself, packed with stocktaking questionnaires, press releases, a photo library and the outpourings of the Preparatory Committee, abbreviated UN-style as the Prepcom, which sounds like something out of George Orwell, because it is.

On the WSIS site is a document issued November 18, at the end of the Tunis summit, containing 40 statements on building an Information Society, and among these, item number six contains some information that is truly alarming. It spells out that the delegates in Tunis have ‘established a coherent long-term link between the WSIS process and other relevant major United Nations Conferences and Summits.” The internet grab, in other words, has become part of the UN grand plan.

And what is that plan? The UN's 1945 founding mandate was to promote peace. Sometime during the past six decades of dictator-packed voting blocks, diplomatic privileges, immunities and institutional secrecy, the UN instead got into the business of promoting mainly itself. At today's UN, that involves the self-interest of two basic groups, and neither bodes well for the internet.

The first UN group is interested mainly in censorship, though they're also partial to money where they can get it. That would be the General Assembly, made up of the UN's 191 member states. Unfortunately, that membership includes dozens of repressive regimes, such as China, Cuba, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and information-summit-hosting Tunisia; in other words, countries whose despots have a common interest in hating and fearing the kind of freedom the Internet might offer their subject fellow citizens. Under the guise of taking control of the net to bring orderly access to all, they hope to acquire control over exactly who gets what. It is telling that in the list of financial contributions for the Tunis summit, the third-largest donor state after Japan and Sweden (both jockeying for influence at the UN) was Saudi Arabia— whose rulers specialize in banning just about every freedom you can imagine, including free speech.

The second group is the UN Secretariat, which is mainly interested in money, though they're also partial to censorship when they can get away with it – which, since they operate with diplomatic immunity, is most of the time. According to the UN charter, the Secretariat is simply supposed to function as the administrative arm of the UN, run by a Secretary-General whose job is basically to manage the shop. But for quite some time the Secretariat has been evolving into more or less a state unto itself, led by a Secretary-General whose ambitions-- on the evidence of his various campaigns, programs and proposals over the past eight years-- tend less toward managing the office than running the world.

For this, the billions paid in dues and contributions every year by member states, most substantially by the U.S., are still not ample enough. They also entail such headaches as having to periodically satisfy members of the U.S. Congress that the UN actually deserves funding. What the Secretary-General keeps angling for is a direct global tax base, to collect money directly from you and me, whether we like it or not. And though the Secretary-General of the moment, Kofi Annan, has been particularly lively in the pursuit of a global tax base to call his own, it is not just Annan who fits this description, but a whole bevy of aides and advisers who inhabit the upper reaches of the UN – many of them, like Annan, denizens of the place, or its sister multilateral institutions, for decades.

Of course, there are many areas in which the aims of the repressive regimes and self-aggrandizing Secretariat come together. The common interest, after all, is in telling other people what to do. And much in the manner of the Soviet central planners of the last century, the UN these days has gotten into the business of expanding its empire on any front left undefended. The UN portfolio of projects by now includes everything from the world economy to the weather. As you read this, an estimated 10,000 delegates and observers from 189 countries are meeting for 10 days in Montreal, Canada, to continue the UN discussions on climate change. It's possible this meeting alone will generate enough hot air to melt the polar ice caps. But otherwise, this sort of jamboree has little to do with science, and everything to do with a UN-based bid to tax rich countries and fund UN-related climate-change initiatives (though one has to admire the creativity of UN personnel a few years back in commissioning a study of whether snow lines were receding at Alpine ski resorts).

The most notorious of the recent UN power grabs was Oil-for-Food, which began as a limited and somewhat ad hoc relief program, but turned into the biggest scam in history for the simple reason that the UN tapped right into the oil wells of Saddam Hussein's UN-sanctioned Iraq – effectively dipping its cup right into the world oil market. Once that happened, getting relief to the Iraqi people became a sideshow to doing business with Saddam. The idea was that the UN would supervise Saddam, ensuring he sold oil only to buy relief goods for the Iraqi people. For its administrative pains, the UN Secretariat collected 2.2% of the revenue on every barrel of oil sold by Saddam, totaling $1.4 billion over the course of the seven year program. Member states that supported Saddam got lucrative business from him, with the eager but confidential approval of the Secretariat. What followed was oil-for-fraud, oil-for-palaces, oil-for-weapons, kickbacks for Saddam, payoffs to businesses and politicians, and, allegedly, bribes to assorted UN officials surrounding Kofi Annan. None of that was disclosed to the public at the time, and far too little has been disclosed since, by this same UN now proposing itself as the keeper of the Internet information society. We know it today only because President Bush finally put together a coalition outside the UN, and over UN protest, to topple Saddam -- and in so doing, exposed a lot of dirty laundry, not only Saddam's, but the UN's.

Oil-for-Food was the kind of fiasco that should have humbled the UN. But with the Oil-for-Food scandal high in the headlines, Annan rolled out another proposal this year that has the potential to be even worse -- unimaginable though that might seem. This one was his plan for global taxation, in which he wants the world's wealthiest nations to pledge an automatic .7% of their annual gross national income for aid – much of that, presumably to be administered by the UN. Never mind that decades of UN-run aid programs have done more to prop up and bail out tyrants than to help the impoverished people living under them – since UN aid is generally funneled through governments, and it is basically despotic government that keeps people poor. For the UN, the big effect of Annan's global tax plan would be to provide a steady gusher of billions straight into the coffers of the same UN Secretariat that administered Oil-for-Food. That plan was shot down by the U.S. at Annan's “reform” summit this past September. But it is only down, not out. That number, the .7%, persists in UN rhetoric. It is the germ of a plan, and the UN has been playing with similar, smaller, and perhaps more feasible plans of similar kind. A tax on airlines. A tax on… well, that brings us back to the internet.

The danger by now is that the UN has two powerfully motivated interest groups, the censors and the taxers, both gunning for control of the net. And the UN has already sprouted a bureaucracy, complete with Prepcoms, to organize the next summit, and the next. The takeover bid failed in Tunis, but with enough time and persistence, it could very well happen.

So, what's a blogger to do? For people who care about freedom and value the internet for all the right reasons, the best answer I can see is to fight back with the best weapon you've got— the truth. It helped air out CBS. Indeed, it is on blogs that much of the best UN coverage can be found already. We need more. If it's information the UN wants to talk about, let's start with a lot more information about the UN itself. Find it, post it, The more daylight, the better the chance that the UN will have to either shut itself down, or clean up its act—and back away from the internet.

Just to help kick things off, here are two questions I've been puzzling over, along with some other members of the press, for a while now. Can anyone out there find the answers?

1) What happened to Kojo Annan's Mercedes? Or is it Kofi's? (For those not yet tuned in to the saga of the wayward UN Mercedes Benz, here's some background at National Review.)

2) This one sounds simple, but it's not. What is the total budget of the UN? Doo-dads, voluntary contributions, principal organs and wing-dings included? Here's one place to start, a map of the UN wonderworld.

Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.



oil-for-food, united-nations