15 December 2006

As the Internet gains ground in communications impact, the U.N. Secretariat will need to review its lost opportunity to play a leadership role. A promising start a decade ago when the U.N. website was first launched against very difficult odds was careless wasted. Instead of turning the two Information Technology Summits in Geneva and Tunis into pillars to construct an effective U.N. mechanism, the U.N. Secretariat looked -- wrongly -- as if it was siding with autocratic governments seeking to control freedom of speech. Instead of seeking to lead in the right direction, the interest in the Secretariat seemed to be how to keep the issue within a small interconnected circle exchanging jobs. While Internet leadership teams were being strengthened everywhere else, the U.N. team was becoming the weakest link.

For example, in preparation for a U.N. sponsored World Summit on Information Technology (WSIS), the only dysfunctional team was that of the U.N. While all other players were fighting real battles on free speech, governance, technical capacity, impact on other media and a number of relevant issues, the U.N. Secretary General's presentation was mainly stuck on old technologies and vague generalities. And while mainstream media like The New York Times, Financial Times, Washington Post, CNN, Fox News and others were weighing in with editorials, the most daring statement by the U.N. representative at the last crucial preparatory gathering in Geneva was on the need "to assess strengths, weaknesses and opportunities." Pressed further, he volunteered the view that "based on this assessment, there would be changes that may be required"! Such a vague absence of U.N. leadership, particularly on a question of freedom of expression in line with Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights, raised doubts that at least some U.N. bureaucrats were in an alliance with authoritarian governments, who were particularly keen on controlling speech.

Clearly, the Internet has many problems. Pornography and spam are some of them. The digital divide and swift technological changes and imbalanced conversion with the rest of the media also needs an international response. Instead, the focus seems to be mainly on control. In that regard, it is interesting to note the role by Yoshi Utsumi, the Secretary General of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which hosted the first gathering in Geneva four years ago. As a Japanese government official on loan, his ability to control Internet traffic (and market) will be of special interest to his country's national interest and great value to its business. That, for now, sounds far-fetched. If Al Gore invented the Internet, Yoshi Utsumi would control it. But anyway, he will continue trying.

The U.N. Secretariat had played a pioneering role in the early nineties when an official website www.un.org was launched in 1994. No budget was allowed, so a team was "scotch taped" to pull it off under direct supervision of the then head of the Department of Public Information, Mr. Samir Sanbar, in close collaboration with the Department of Administration and Management which provided technical support. Professional partnerships with a growing Internet private section helped. Indeed, the U.N has a great deal to be proud about in the new and ever changing areas in information technology. It pioneered the website in 1994, despite fierce internal opposition by almost every senior official, getting over four million visits a month. It introduced the Internet to its radio, television, and press operation, drawing on voluntary staff in the absent, available posts. UNDP, under the leadership of Mark Malloch-Brown, made a pioneering arrangement with one of the most advanced electronic informational technology companies to support its development outreach -- communications because in the mainstream of its field programs, UNICEF, prodded by Carol Bellamy, also introduced a similar approach. So did the World Food Program under Catherine Bertini.

When time came to prepare for the Information Technology Summit, political expediency and personal considerations played a key role. Nittin Desai was and will always be a pillar of sustainable development for years, but his appointment as Special Representative for that particular task came too late and was not really his area. The reason for his designation was more to do with placating Indian sensitivities than ensuring a successful conference. When Kofi Annan needed to put his former Special Assistant Tharoor as head of Public Information, even he had some qualms of moving a D-1 in 1998 to an Under Secretary General in three years time. More relevant, Tharoor did not carry weight in India. So he had to curry favor with Delhi by finding senior posts for two distinguished Indians, the outgoing Desai and the Indian U.N. Ambassador who was designated as Special Representative for East Timor.

The Internet is not just a technical interest; it is a political issue. Freedom of expression is not just a media question; it is at the care of human rights in every society. Normally in such international gatherings, the U.N plays a leadership role. Its team would bridge gaps, facilitate consensus, and is generally seen and perceived as doing so. It also makes every effort to ensure the attendance of as many heads of state as possible. Instead, the Geneva summit had only about fifty of the one hundred and ninety-two member states, one-third of an average summit. Some of those who attended did not allow free use of the Internet in their own countries, while some others were known for expelling journalists at any sign of unfavorable reporting. There were, of course, active groups that fought from the outset to include a reference to "press freedom" which was overlooked until the last preparatory day when the conference was about to start.

While approaching the following Summit in Tunis, an added setback to the Secretariat involved the President of the U.N. High Level Advisory Group on Information and Communications Technology, Jose Maria Figueres. The former Costa Rican president had been appointed with ceremonial fanfare on 13 November 2000. Acclaimed as "a leader for advancing digital technology for development," he was to lead "a who's who of pioneers in advancing information technology and promoting its uses for economic and social development." It was claimed that serving under his inspiring leadership would be top brass like Vinton Cerf, widely regarded as the founder of the Internet; sociologist Manuel Castells, a top analyst of the social implications of the information technology revolution; Jiang Mian-heng, vice-president of the Academy of Science, China; and Muhammed Yunus who brought cell phone technology to farmers and villagers in rural Asia. The private sector was supposed to be represented by, among others, Cisco Systems chief executive John Chambers, Pacific Century Group's chairman and chief executive Richard Li (China), Nokia chief executive Jorma Ollila, Hewlett Packard chief executive (then) Carleton Fiorina, and Sam Pitroda, chief executive of WorldTel, based in India. With such an impressive task force, President Figueres was counted upon to "advise the Secretary General in consultation with governments, the private sector, foundations and multilateral development institutions on building a strategic partnership with the private sector to bridge the global digital divide."

Alas. Five years later, none of the above appeared -- though some would send representatives. The one who truly disappeared was the most touted "leader," Senor Figueres. He reportedly was forced to resign. There was a matter of $906,000 in "consultancy fees" which needed clearer disclosure. An appearance in Davos 2005 was similarly canceled, as El Presidente had been other wised detained.

A new chairman was elected: U.N. Under-Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs, Jose Antonio Ocampo. His department serves as the Group's secretariat. His predecessor Nittin Desai is the Secretary General's Representative to the World Summit on the Information Society. The Director in charge of that venture in that Department had been promoted earlier by Mr. Desai. It's all in the family; one cozy bubble which has yet to connect with the real world.