Internet and the United Nations

I spent a few recent plane flights reading Paul Kennedy’s The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations. It’s a fine history of the UN, worth reading to be sure. (I loved his book from the late 1980s, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.) Kennedy starts, but does not long linger, on the period leading up to Bretton Woods and San Francisco and other meetings, (i.e., the interesting but unsatisfying story of the League of Nations and what came before it). Most of the book, organized thematically (phew!) rather than chronologically, takes up the treatment by the UN of key issues like security, peacekeeping, and economic development.

What sets the book apart, for me, was the treatment of “other” topics, such as environment, children’s issues, and cultural issues (what he calls the “softer face” of the UN) and human rights. Kennedy is not uncritical in his treatment of the UN’s role in these areas, but he seems to see in these activities great importance and even greater promise: “… it is difficult to imagine how much more riven and ruinous our world of six billion people would be today had there been no UN social, environmental, and cultural agendas — and no institutions to attempt, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, to put them into practice on the ground. It is a mixed record, but it is hard to see how it could be otherwise.” (p. 176). Amen.

In the human rights context, Kennedy lauds the work of Mary Robinson (p. 197-8) and others in the human rights context, while noting the many tensions that lurk in the treatment of human rights in the various relevant charters and institutions of the UN. One of these tensions bears on an issue that we’ve been working on at the Berkman Center for some time. In our shared work on the OpenNet Initiative (with Toronto, Oxford, and Cambridge), and with other partners in the related context of corporate ethics (Berkeley, St. Gallen, CDT), we’ve been puzzling over the sovereignty of states and the rights of individuals to civil liberties. On the one hand, of course, the several dozen states that filter the Internet and practice online surveillance (we imagine) of their citizens and visitors have a right to regulate activity within the jurisdiction that they control. On the other hand, the UN and its member states, through a series of treaties, have set forth the understanding that there are certain rights that attach to any individual in the signatory states regardless of the (good or bad) decisions that those states might make to abridge those rights. Kennedy frames much of the chapter on human rights in this same context: “How are world citizens and their governments to reconcile universal human rights with claims for state sovereignty?”

As those who study the Internet and care about human rights, we haven’t made the case clearly yet for where the rights of free expression and privacy in the Internet context fit in this balance. Many of us no doubt have strong convictions about which side of the ledger filtering and surveillance fall on; others, I know, see the issue are tricky and nuanced. There’s a field emerging here with enormous significance. The ability of activists to rely upon the Internet in repressive regimes is but one of the important things that hangs in the balance. I suspect that there are many captains of industry at large technology companies that feel caught in a purgatory wrought by this tension.

The most notable thing to me about Kennedy’s book — through no fault of his, to be clear — is the extent to which Internet plays essentially no role in the story of the UN’s first 60 years. The word appears four times in the text if the index is to be believed, and after reading the whole thing, I believe the index maker to have been accurate. No doubt the ITU or WSIS or the UN ICT Task Force could have made it into the text (they didn’t), but lots of other significant activities were likewise left out, understandably.

For Kennedy, Internet seems to be about an alternative way to tell the world about news, (i.e., the next chapter in the trajectory that starts with radio then goes to TV — and now it’s the net). That’s one way to talk about it, I suppose. The most extensive treatment appears on page 236: “… a more in-depth investigation of the place of news and cultural communications in the evolution of international affairs would need to consider the pervasive and transnational nature of the Internet. Since it has grown so fast in the past decade, and its popularity is exploding in the giant states of India and China, it is extremely difficult to get a good measure of its many impacts; but it seems fair to remark that because this is a medium that can be used and abused by anyone with electricity and a computer, it may become less and less a Western-dominated instrument.” An understatement, to be sure; and I am not certain that Kennedy is thinking of states as the abusers, but rather individuals — though the sentence is ambiguous enough that maybe my reading is wrong.

I can’t imagine that the history of the UN in 2065, written by the next eminent historian and chairman of a blue-ribbon commission, will have so little to say about information and communications technologies and the UN’s role in our field, but maybe it will — and maybe, though I am not so sure, that would be a wonderful thing if it were to come to pass.