- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2005

If you want to know why U.N. oversight of the Internet is a bad idea, look no further than two recent newspaper headlines.

The first concerns the news that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) threw its weight behind a pro-cultural protectionism treaty (in Paris late last month.) Treaty supporters want governments able to limit consumer access to foreign cultural goods, if this helps protect local cultures. A coalition of industrialized and unindustrialized states, including Canada, France and the United Kingdom, backs the treaty. The treaty amounts to a declaration of war against America’s internationally successful movie, recording and TV broadcast industries.

The treaty is worded sloppily, says Louise Oliver, U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO. During the debate over the treaty, she noted how a government, “in the name of cultural diversity, might invoke the ambiguous provisions of this convention to try to assert a right to erect trade barriers to goods or services that are deemed to be cultural expressions.”

“That term, ‘cultural expressions,’ has never been clearly defined and therefore is open to wide misinterpretation. Such protectionism would be detrimental to the free exchange of ideas and images. It could also impair the world trading system and hurt exporters of all countries,” Ambassador Oliver said.

The treaty’s backers may congratulate themselves for now but it isn’t clear how any government can insulate its population from foreign cultural “pollution” in the 21st century. The digital age makes it easy for consumers even of modest means to defy efforts to “protect” them from foreign cultural goods. The booming global trade in pirated DVDs demonstrates as much.

The day of the UNESCO decision, word came that the theocracy running Iran ordered tight restrictions on what movies can be shown in that country’s theaters. The “distribution and screening of foreign films which promote secular, feminist, liberal or nihilist ideas” is officially forbidden. Like the UNESCO treaty, Iran’s ban is a none-too-subtle shot at Hollywood.

No one should be surprised to hear Iran proudly backs the UNESCO cultural protectionism treaty. It is a member in good standing of the International Network on Cultural Policy (or INCP), an intergovernmental group based in Canada that lobbied for the treaty’s passage.

What have these two developments to do with the debate about U.N. oversight of the Internet? Well, plenty.

Many governments, such as Iran’s, fear a free flow of information via the Internet. Iran’s leaders fear the Internet for the same reason they fear foreign movies: Both expose the people to outside ideas and call the status quo into question.

It will be interesting to see if any repressive states use the UNESCO cultural protectionism treaty to legitimize their Internet censorship efforts. Watchdog groups such as the OpenNet Initiative, a freedom of Internet information study group involving collaboration between Harvard, Cambridge and the University of Toronto, will be able to tell us if they do.

While most Americans believe in the free exchange of ideas, opinions and artistic creations, as the recent hijacking of UNESCO shows, this is far from being a majority view, globally speaking. Iran used its position at UNESCO to work with like-minded states — some of which normally would treat Iran as a pariah — and pass the pro-cultural-protectionism treaty.

We cannot see the future with perfect accuracy. But let’s imagine the U.N. takes a role in Internet governance. One must wonder how much time would pass before many states involved in the UNESCO debacle organized a pro-Internet-censorship bloc and used the U.N.’s governance powers to meddle. Indeed, the INCP success in building support for the UNESCO treaty is a model any budding pro-censorship bloc could follow.

Those countries favoring the Internet’s continued free evolution would find themselves isolated and shut out, not because they were out-argued but due to simple numbers and an intolerance of dissent. This happened to the only two countries that opposed the cultural protectionism treaty — the United States and Israel.

The news about how Iran and its cohorts hijacked UNESCO should settle the matter. Should the U.N. govern the Internet? The answer must be clear and unambiguous: not now, not ever.

Neil Hrab was the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s 2003 Warren T. Brookes Fellow.

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