First Coffee for November 21, 2005

David Sims : First Coffee
David Sims
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First Coffee for November 21, 2005

By David Sims

The news as of the first coffee this morning, and the music is Patsy Cline: The Definitive Collection:

Those of us who believe the Internet should remain free and unregulated by government won the first round this past week in Tunisia, when the United Nations’ clumsy power grab was foiled.

But that’s all it was – the first round.

It’s no secret that First CoffeeSM is not a huge fan of Turtle Bay, where the real estate would be put to much better use as high-rise condos to bring some market forces to bear on Manhattan real estate. Whatever one thinks the United Nations does well – we’re open to suggestions – running the Internet simply isn’t one of them.

Part of it’s organizational. The United States Congress, a much more cohesive and ideologically coherent body, can’t run anything, which is why government has agencies to do its work for it. Given that the United Nations is a much more disparate, heterodox body, the composition of its operative committees and agencies is much more important than the “United Nations” name on the office door.

First CoffeeSM wouldn’t mind the Internet being run by a committee of, say, Lesotho, Finland, Australia, Slovenia and Japan. But those are the sorts of countries which are not interested in any government running the Internet. It’s the governments interested in governmental control of the Internet which are precisely those you do not want having governmental control over the Internet.

And the countries keenly interested in United Nations – e.g., their own – control over the Internet are Saudi Arabia, the European Union, Cuba, Brazil, China and Iran. These are the countries pushing for U.N. control of the Internet, these are the ones who would be on the committee governing it.

Look at the track record.

Nobody’s denying the United Nations’ ability to effectively manage big-budget international operations. As former Delaware governor Pete du Pont, currently chairman of the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis, points out in “Cease-Fire in Tunisia” in a recent edition of the OpinionJournal, their Oil-for-Food program required the U.N. to smuggle ten billion dollars’ worth of Iraqi oil illegally to adjacent nations, give Saddam Hussein $229 million in bribes from 139 of 248 companies involved in the oil business and $1.5 billion in kickbacks and illegal payments from 2,253 firms out of 3,614 providing humanitarian goods under U.N. auspices.

That’s an impressive logistical accomplishment, clearly the U.N. can work with big numbers and has the ability to coordinate with thousands of global agencies and firms, what First CoffeeSM’s concerned about is the accountability of their efforts.

Paul Volcker, the internationally-respected former chairman of the Federal Reserve who headed the commission to study the Oil-for-Food scandal, concluded that the “Secretariat, the Security Council and U.N. contractors failed most grievously in their responsibilities to monitor the integrity of the program.”

Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s said Volcker’s report was “helpful,” and proceeded to do absolutely nothing about it. None of the United Nations employees Volcker found to have performed unethically and improperly have been dismissed from their jobs – U.N. Deputy Director Joseph Stephanides, who was fired six months ago for illegal bidding procedures, was rehired recently by Annan himself.

As Gov. du Pont puts it, “Dennis Kozlowski stole $600 million from Tyco and got eight to 25 years in prison; Kofi Annan supervised more than $12 billion in international theft and will stay in his job. All of which explains why allowing the United Nations to be in charge of running the Internet is a very bad idea.

What’s ethics got to do with it?

“The Internet is one of the greatest mechanisms of progress in the history of the world. More than one billion people use it; anyone with a computer and a connection has access to 167 million megabytes of information that is instantly available. Ideas and information can be shared, explained, tested and improved upon… governments, economies, institutions and individuals can and do prosper,” Gov. du Pont writes.

So who could be opposed to that? What sourpuss killjoy would want to shut that down? How about China, Brazil, the EU, Iran, Cuba and Saudi Arabia? As Kenneth Neil Cukier, who covers technology and regulatory issues for The Economist puts it, “some of the governments calling the loudest for more power, like Iran and China, are the ones least committed to the values of transparency and individual openness that the Internet offers.”

As hard as it is for Americans to grasp, there are governments out there who simply don’t like their people to be reading freely anything the Internet has to offer. “The regimes in China, Cuba, Iran, Syria and Tunisia, for example, believe Internet content must be controlled so that individuals do not have access to any information that has not been approved by their governments,” Gov. du Pont notes, reminding us that “in China the word ‘democracy’ is not allowed on the Internet.”

So why does America control the Internet?

The fact that America ultimately controls the Internet means that, effectively, nobody does – America’s decision on control is to play it hands-off. ICANN handles the technical details, what goes on – the actual content – is a free-for-all. Nobody can point to a single instance of the United States government censoring the Internet’s free expression, except in the case of child pornography or other clearly illegal content.

America likes freedom, free speech and free markets because, frankly, we do well in those. People who don’t think they have the sort of ideas that will win on the open, free market are those who don’t like free-for-alls. America likes them, because we believe that our ideas – democracy, regulated capitalism, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of choice – are the best ideas. We don’t think they can be trumped in any open contest. They can’t. So those who owe their power and Swiss bank accounts to other ideas naturally don’t want their populations coming around to America’s ideas.

European Union spokesman Martin Selmayr said the U.S. must “give up their unilateral control and everything will be fine.” As Gov. du Pont says, maybe by “fine” Selmayr means “as fine as it is in China, where, according to The New York Times, “major search engines... must stop posting their own commentary articles and instead make available only pieces generated by government-controlled newspapers and news agencies.”

This isn’t the first time unfree governments have sought to control the Internet, which is for many people living in despotic countries their only source of free information. The last United Nations World Summit on the Internet, held in 2003, concluded that “governments should intervene... to maximize economic and social benefits and serve national priorities.” In other words, let places like Iran, Cuba and Saudi Arabia decide what people can access online.

Round one’s done, get ready for round two.

Fortunately the U.S. managed to maintain the freedom of the Internet last week in Tunis. Unfortunately they allowed the unfree lobby a foot in the door, creating an Internet Governance Forum that allows ICANN to keep doing its job, has no real power (yet), and will begin meeting in 2006 to consider all aspects of Internet governance.

When the U.N. was founded after World War II it had no real power, it was never intended – by America, anyway – to be a world government. But it has craftily expanded its power over time, and today does things its founders never dreamed it would do. This useless IGF is beginning the way the U.N. did – a place to just talk about things. Nobody thinks it’s content staying that way.

Round two’s gearing up already. Annan is again demanding international discussions of “Internet governance issues” and ICANN. “So first the U.N. and the E.U. will seek Internet content control, and then perhaps the old U.N. idea of applying an international tax on e-mail messages,” Gov. du Pont writes.

Oh, they didn’t tell you that they want to tax e-mail messages?

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