The Rosett Report

Aw Shucks, Why Not Let the UN Control the Internet?

Here it comes again — another United Nations-sponsored grab to control the Internet. Next month, Dec. 3-14, the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is holding a conference in Dubai, at which UN member states will meet to update the ITU treaty arrangements for international communications. The window will be open for everything from proposals for UN-regulated and administered fees to, as The Hill reports, language from China and Iran, which, in an effort to share with the world at large their own domestic practices, “could lead to online censorship and government monitoring of Web traffic.”

For those of you who don’t spend hours poring over UN web sites, some quick background on the UN’s ITU. Based in Geneva, its current secretary-general is Hamadoun Toure of Mali, whose credentials include a PhD from the University of Electronics, Telecommunications and Informatics of Moscow; honorary degrees from, among other places, the State University of Belarus and the National University of Moldova; plus membership in the Golden Order of the Honour of the International Telecommunication Academy of Moscow. The ITU’s deputy secretary-general, Zhao Houlin, is from China.

I’d include here a list of participants expected at the Dubai conference, except, in one those ominous foreshadowings to which the UN’s more troublesome gatherings are prone, the conference web site features its roster of “Announced Participants” as a restricted link, accessible only to those the ITU deems worthy. Apparently that does not include the great unwashed Internet-using public.

But hey, with the UN on the job, what could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, of course. The UN, in one way or another, has been eyeing the internet for years as a potential font of cash and lever of control. And the UN these days is the kind of place where Iran now chairs the Non-Aligned Movement, which consists of 119 member states plus the Palestinians — and accounts for well over half the membership of the UN General Assembly. All the usual old troubles apply: The UN remains an unaccountable, murky bureaucracy, lending itself to the manipulations of its worst members.

It is devoutly to be hoped that the Internet will escape the clutches of this conference without mortal damage (see: “U.N. Agency Reassures: We Just Want to Break the Internet, Not Take it Over“). If it does not, then is there any comfort to be found?

Tough question. But I’m trying here. Let us count the ways:

1) Letter-writing could make a comeback. The Internet has pretty much wiped out the days when you’d communicate from afar by feeding a sheet of paper into a typewriter, and crafting something that would survive the test of time — or at least the time needed for post office delivery. (Of course, the post office is on its way out of business. But one step at a time… .) But if Web communications are subject to the same system that brings us the UN budget process, we may all be driven back to the joys not only of letter writing, but of transmitting information by pen, ink, and pony express.

2) Folks would have a lot more free time. All those hours spent surfing the Web, connecting with people, doing business, research and other activities of that sort, would start to look a lot less cost-efficient. Hobbies such as knitting, darning socks and weeding the vegetable garden might start to look a lot more attractive, especially as the global economy, choked off from the current wave of communication and information, heads into a real nosedive.

3) Greater certainty, which — let us admit it — brings its own brand of relief. You wouldn’t have to wonder anymore if government censors are spying on your communications. You’d be sure of it.

4) No more worries about whether the UN is trying to take over the Internet. Instead of living in a state of anxiety every time the UN’s club of governments gathers to debate proposals for global regulation and taxes, instead of fearing encroachments on your wallet and your freedom, you could relax, secure in the knowledge that it’s a done deal.

5) More jobs at the UN’s ITU. Admittedly, that’s not a help to most of the world’s population. But for the lucky few, there will likely be more of these UN posts which on top of handsome base salaries offer, to the right applicants, such amenities as assignment grants, dependency allowances, education grants, travel and home leave reimbursement, health insurance, rental subsidies and exemption from income tax.

Perhaps there are other benefits as well to a UN Internet grab. That’s the list I’ve been able to come up with.  And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go exhume my old manual typewriter from the back of the closet, and go online, while that’s still a reasonable option, to hunt down some vintage typewriter ribbons.