The Rosett Report

The UN's ITU and the Internet: A Cautionary Tale

As the United Nations heads deeper into its Internet grab, a.k.a its 11-day telecom treaty conference, in Dubai, things aren’t going so well for America and the friends of freedom. The Hill reports that “A joint proposal  from the United States and Canada aimed at keeping Internet regulations out of a global telecommunications treaty failed to secure early approval from other countries on Tuesday” — though talks may continue along these lines.

This conference has been convened by a Geneva-based UN outfit called the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which for most of the world public is simply one more mysterious blob in the UN alphabet soup. To better understand the problem here, it might help to know that the makeup of the ITU pretty much mirrors that of the UN General Assembly — the UN body of 193 member states, dominated by the Iran-chaired Non-Aligned Movement and the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation, in which it is standard operating procedure that the U.S. and its democratic allies provide the bulk of the resources, and the thug regimes of the world decide how those resources should be used.

But let’s add to this some nitty-gritty, which largely escaped notice when it was first reported, in 2005, and since then seems to have slid right down the Memory Hole. While the getting and spending of the ITU usually attracts little notice, it did figure in the UN-authorized inquiry into the Oil-for-Food program in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The ITU was one of the UN agencies tasked to deliver humanitarian relief to the people of Iraq, in this case by way of developing the telecommunications system. This mission quickly got bogged down in Security Council concerns that Saddam would use a beefed-up telecom system for military purposes. But with funds flowing for the project, the ITU, undaunted by the realities, kept right on spending.

The result? As the Volcker inquiry reported, on Sept. 7, 2005: “While ITU spent less than $900,000 of Programme funds for humanitarian aid and services during the Programme, it spent more than $10 million in administrative costs.”

Even by wastrel standards of the UN, that’s spectacular: A 10-to-one ratio of administrative costs versus spending on the actual services. But that’s what happened when the UN tapped into Iraq’s oil sales, and the ITU, as part of that bonanza, tapped into a gusher of easy money. Has the ITU changed its ways? If so, it’s been more than modest about sharing the news. To the current concerns that this ITU treaty conference in Dubai may be seeking ways to regulate, tax and censor the Internet, we might also want to add the worry that there is a UN administrative apparatus here that needs to be kept as far as possible from filling its coffers courtesy of users of the Internet.