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Cuba, Iran Wrong for Internet-Rule Role - 2003-07-20


Saturday, July 19, 2003 Cuba, Iran Wrong for Internet-Rule Role

July 19, 2003

The Ledger

Andres Oppenheimer

If you are outraged by the fact that Libya has been elected president of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, get this: Cuba and Iran -- among the world's worst dictatorships -- are playing a major role in drafting new U.N.-backed rules on the worldwide use of the Internet.

Not surprisingly, these repressive regimes are proposing rules that, if adopted by the upcoming U.N. Summit on the Information Society, would not only allow but encourage widespread censorship of the Internet, as well as growing state controls of TV and radio stations.

The World Summit on the Information Society, scheduled for December in Geneva, is organized by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and the International Telecommunication Union, another U.N. affiliate.

UNESCO, you may remember, is the organization whose campaign for a "New World Information Order" -- with greater state controls -- led the United States to withdraw from that group 18 years ago. The U.S. government is scheduled to rejoin the organization this year.

When I heard about the proposals to regulate the Internet, I went into the summit's Web site, www.itu.int/wsis, and read key portions of the draft declaration that is scheduled to be adopted in December. It contains alarming proposals.

The most terrifying paragraphs are being proposed by Cuba, the country that this year arrested 75 peaceful dissidents -- including 26 independent journalists -and sentenced them to as long as 28 years in prison for "crimes" such as possessing a tape recorder, having an unauthorized copying machine, or publishing articles in foreign media.

Cuba's crackdown on journalists led the French human rights group Reporters Without Borders to declare the island as "the world's biggest prison for members of the press."

Among the Cuban proposals contained in the summit's draft documents, which also include some milder recommendations by Iran:

- That the summit's Declaration of Principles paragraph calling for universal and affordable access to the Internet include the words "in conformity with domestic legislation of each country."

In other words, Cuba wants the U.N. document to give an official blessing to its policy of deciding who gets access to the Internet.

- That the document's paragraph about Internet domain names and other oversight rules, which establishes that Internet governance must be "multilateral, democratic and transparent," be changed to include the word "intergovernmental."

In other words, that all major decisions on Internet traffic be subject to governments' approval.

- That the summit's action plan include a paragraph stating, "legal and administrative measures should be taken to prohibit undue concentration of private ownership and control of the media."

Fine, but who is to judge what constitutes "undue concentration"? Countries such as Cuba, which have total concentration of the media in government hands?

- That another paragraph be added to the action plan, stating that accountability by the global media "should be enhanced through targeted measures of screening by governments."

Great! We would have governments that jail journalists for their writings "screening" our stories.

U.S. officials and international freedom-of-the-press groups are worried about the December summit. They say there is a real chance that some of this language may actually be adopted.

The key issue at the conference will be whether the international community condemns or endorses the "fire walls" that many dictatorships are erecting to block access to Internet Web sites that they consider politically inconvenient, they say.

"Cuba is proposing language that would favor state control of the media," said U.S. assistant secretary of state for international organizations Kim R. Holmes in an interview. "There is reason to be concerned."

Asked whether the Bush administration is reconsidering the U.S. decision to rejoin UNESCO on Oct. 1, Holmes said that "it's not something what we are consciously considering at this time."

Other officials note that, to his credit, UNESCO Director Koishiro Matsuura has criticized Cuba's recent crackdown on independent journalists.

My conclusion: If dictatorships prevail in getting the December summit to approve a greater "screening by governments" of the new century's most rapidly growing communication medium, I would see UNESCO as a dangerous advocate of global censorship.

Perhaps what's needed is just the opposite effort: an international alliance of democracies to fight censorship on the Internet.

Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., has proposed a bill calling on the U.S. government to "direct substantial international broadcasting resources to a global effort to defeat Internet jamming and censorship." Technically, it can be done, congressional sources say.

I agree. Rather than debating proposals to impose global censorship, the December summit should expose regimes that are still trying to deny their citizens their basic rights to read whatever they want.

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