15 May 2005

Where are those people living? They place each other in charge of crucial issues without having a clue about what is going on in the real world around them. Five years into the 21st century, the U.N. Secretary General's "Director of Communications" still writes letters to the editor about "leaving no stone unturned," the Secretary General seeking to "get to the bottom" of things and a leapfrogged "Under-Secretary General for Public Information and Communications" claims "blizzards" of responsive initiatives while the facts show that the media is savaging the Secretary General and the Organization multiple times daily.

Their latest irrelevance is in dealing with the Internet. About five years ago, it became fashionable to speak about the "Digital Divide." Suddenly, any official with any influence within the U.N. tried to muscle in on that growing area by feigning interest in that "divide." Very few bothered to learn that it was not the same as between economically rich and poor countries; others went even further pushing projects in countries which lacked adequate electric power to sustain a useful investment. What was important was to show on paper in ECOSOC and Assembly meetings that the matter was in hand. It was disappointing to observe distinguished internationalists from developing countries behave on this issue as if they lived in Scandinavia. A World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) held last year in Geneva was wasted by lack of any real leadership by the U.N. Secretariat. Open attempts by authoritarian regimes to muzzle free press through controlling the Internet dubbed part of that gathering as the: "You Report, We Deport" Conference. In the absence of a courageous position by the Secretariat, the U.N. looked as if it sided with the repressive regimes against Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights. The trend continues with the preparation to hold a follow-up meeting in Tunis later this year.

A further embarrassment was that the official appointed by Mr. Annan to head the Information Technology Advisory Panel had to quit under questioning (elsewhere) about the disappearance of a substantial amount of funds (see earlier unforum issues). The current working group Chairman Nitin Desai, a former Under-Secretary General for Economic and Social Development is now talking in generalities. The main aim of a recent preparatory meeting, he said, was "to assess strengths, weaknesses and opportunities." If you were able to figure anything out of this wisdom, then you will be glad to know that "based on this assessment there would be changes that may be required." That should clarify any ambiguity relating to how all those questions shifting every second in Information Technology will be confronted by those seeking to take charge from Geneva.

Desai, who had made his mark in a sustained campaign against poverty seems now about to be lost in translation. A former admirer felt like sending him an email from the Digital Divide merely saying: "we are hungry"!

The real purpose of those behind that conference seems to be to control the governance of the Internet. Certain governments, their representatives at U.N. offices and agencies and a number of those stung by Internet criticism have formed an alliance. Their cover-up terminology is "the need to find a working definition of Internet governance, to identify public policy issues and to define roles and responsibilities of all actors." What would that actually mean will have to be found out when we get to Tunis. A clue was inserted in a press release which stated that "some participants (in the preparatory group) wanted Internet governance arrangements to be rooted in the United Nations framework, which in their view would give legitimacy to the system."

While mainstream newspapers in the United States are feeling the pinch of electronic media, some senior U.N. officials on the run seek to control the Internet and, meanwhile, dismiss its impact with their ignorance and arrogance. They actually believe that they are on their way to silence critical websites.

They can try. But they can't hide.