Back in November 2012, Arthur Herman, author of Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, warned in the pages of COMMENTARY about what was at stake because of the Obama administration’s decision to turn control over the governance and regulation of the Internet to the United Nations. He explained:
This all began in 2005, when the United Nations sponsored a World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis. That choice of venue was itself rich with irony, since Tunisia’s then dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was the Arab world’s leading censor of the Internet, and the two sponsors of the summit’s trade fair were China’s biggest network companies, Huawei and ZTE. They are the anchors of China’s Great Firewall that keeps out Western ideas and suppresses dissent—and also leaves it free to hack into the secrets of Western governments and corporations more or less at will. That is precisely the kind of Internet many other countries would like to have, and China emerged from the Tunis meeting as their chief spokesman. Several belong to the so-called G-77 of developing countries, which includes Pakistan, the Philippines, Brazil, and Argentina, as well as Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. They believe that the administration of the World Wide Web by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), headquartered in Los Angeles, isn’t responsive enough to the needs of developing countries, and so they pushed through a paragraph in the Tunis final report that “underlines the need to maximize the participation of developing countries in decisions regarding Internet governance, which should reflect their interests, as well as in development and capacity building”—in other words, in helping governments control what their citizens can see, and can’t see, on the Internet. The best way to do that, China proposed in the run-up to the Tunis meeting, was to take administrative control of the Internet away from ICANN and hand it over to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
And here is Heritage with some more detail. The Obama administration cared little, however. Faced with international passions whipped up by Edward Snowden’s leaks—often framed inaccurately by those seeking to amplify his revelations into something more nefarious—it agreed to complete the handover of Internet regulation to the United Nations earlier this year, a move which will become final in a year.
The United Nations has long made itself a laughing stock with its choice of promotions and chairmanships. Take, for example, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya becoming chair of the UN Human Rights Commission or Iran chairing a non-proliferation conference. If Hamas were a member of the United Nations, UN bureaucrats would likely find a way to put it in charge of counter-terrorism.
Over the past few years, Turkey has distinguished itself with an unprecedented crackdown on not only the media, but also the Internet and Twitter. So what does the United Nations do? It chooses Turkey to host an Internet governance forum:
Turkey has begun hosting the ninth annual meeting of the Internet Governance Forum, a United Nations-mandated organization, despite a number of recent controversies regarding the country’s Internet freedom record. Speaking at the event Sept. 2, Minister of Transport, Maritime and Communication Lütfi Elvan focused mainly on the issues of “cybercrimes.” “The Internet is abused by criminal networks, terrorist organizations, drug smugglers and child abusers. Sadly, the rampant abuse of the Internet has reached undesirable heights,” Elvan said.
Amnesty International rightly chimed in to criticize Turkey’s selection:
The Turkish government’s prosecution of Twitter critics is a deeply hypocritical stance for the host of the Internet Governance Forum, Amnesty International said today… The event, which takes place in Istanbul between 2 and 5 September, brings together governments and civil society to share best practice on Internet regulation, security and human rights.Twenty-nine Twitter users are being tried in Izmir, Turkey, and face up to three years in jail for posting tweets during last year’s protests that the authorities claim “incite the public to break the law.” None of the tweets contained any incitement to violence.
Many non-governmental activists urging transfer of Internet governance to the United Nations seemed most concerned with taking regulatory power away from a U.S.-based organization and simply hoped that the United Nations would do the right thing once vested with new power over the Internet. The United Nations, however, seems intent on proving itself unworthy. The question for those committed to free speech and free exchange of information is whether it is too late to rectify the situation and save the internet from a UN bureaucracy more inclined to assuage dictatorships like Turkey than defend freedom and liberty.