Like bureaucrats everywhere, the people running the UN believe above all in the growth of their power. This winter, undeterred by their failures in peacekeeping, AIDS prevention and women's rights, they are focusing on a new target of opportunity: the Internet.
The rest of us may consider the Internet one of the great inventions of modern times, but it affronts the rigid conservatives staffing the UN. They are astonished that no one planned this global enterprise, and they can hardly believe that no one runs it. They yearn to regulate it, and they are working hard, at great expense, to drag it on to their turf.
On Dec. 10-12, more than 6,000 delegates will gather in Geneva at the UN's World Summit on the Information Society, warming the hearts of restaurateurs and hoteliers for several kilometres in every direction. Some 60 heads of government have promised to come, including Gerhard Schroeder and Fidel Castro. The man in charge is Nitin Desai, an economist and a UN under-secretary-general. He's Kofi Annan's special advisor for this project, a nimble bureaucrat who knows how to keep a crazy idea alive and may even push this one through.
Admittedly, the conference in Geneva looked for a while like a solution without a problem. The International Telecommunication Union, a UN agency, proposed this grand international gathering in 1998, after reporting on severe disparities in the telephone systems of rich and poor countries. The General Assembly endorsed the conference in 2001, but about that time things started turning sour. Sad to say, the inequalities began disappearing on their own. As a UN press release put it this year, "The connectivity gap between rich and poor had narrowed." Cellphones were the reason. It looked like the UN wasn't needed. Maybe the conference would have to be cancelled.
But Nitin Desai didn't get his beautiful office in New York by letting that kind of embarrassment inconvenience him. He began chattering about a new problem, which nobody mentioned in 1998. Now, he said, we must deal with a computerization gap, or "the digital divide." The conference's purpose will be to encourage high-speed computer access and content development in the poor countries. And oh, by the way, Desai also wants to take power out of the hands of (can you guess?) the Americans.
He believes the Americans are running things, and it's the duty of the UN to make them stop. Desai says that while the Internet was put together by private interests, its current problems (he mentioned spam, viruses, cybercrime, and pornography) call for "governance." Doing his best to keep up with current language, Desai recently said the Geneva conference will "address such issues as e-education, e-health and e-governance." The UN policy people now insist that the Internet, being a public resource (actually, it's mostly owned in private) should be managed within any given country by the national governments and internationally by, well, the UN.
One thing in particular bothers the UN, though almost no one else in the world thinks about it: For the last five years, an organization incorporated in California, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), has been overseeing the naming of Web sites and the systems by which we send e-mail. It works pretty well, but politicians and bureaucrats view it with suspicion. It may not be broken, but they'd like to try fixing it anyway, because that's what they do. Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa, said just the other day that he thinks ICANN may actually be the best system, but he wants to examine it, and talk it over at the conference. "Otherwise," he said, "the world continues to be governed by California law."
Well, not exactly. ICANN is a Clinton-era construction, set up with Washington's help. But it's financed by governments and corporations in many countries. A majority of directors are non-Americans, and an Australian is president.
I suspect its gravest sin is to serve Internet users without the permission of governments. And the UN remains above all the creature of governments, not individuals. Notoriously, many of its member states hold extremely obnoxious ideas about information. (An ominous sign: China and Saudi Arabia are among those pressing for a UN-directed Internet.)
The faults that Desai ascribes to the Internet aren't imaginary. It's like life: Rich, unpredictable, exciting, appalling, annoying. It's also the most democratic of the world's great enterprises. Scholars need it, and so do poor teenagers doing their homework, and old people trying to re-connect with long-lost relatives. NBC needs it, and so do campaigns against hunger and genital mutilation. It looks a lot like a version of the Utopia that philosophical anarchists preached for generations. The important parts grew from the bottom up, responding swiftly to what its users needed, winning in the process their intense loyalty.
Bureaucrats, above all the politicized and slow-moving bureaucrats who infest the UN, could only harm the Net. Still, it's no wonder they want to get their hands on it. It's everything they are not, the ultimate in decentralization, a spontaneously growing global institution and the antithesis of world government.