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Surprisingly, UN broadband report advocates free speech and competitive markets

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Best interests. Common good. Benign intentions. And all that.

The United Nations, in particular its education, science and cultural organisation (UNESCO), has often been criticised for kowtowing to authoritarian, repressive and socialist regimes when media, markets and speech are on the table. At best, it tends to offer up meaningless generalities that offend no one.

So it was a pleasant surprise to read The State Of Broadband 2013: Universalizing Broadband, a report prepared by two UN offshoots, the International Telecommunications Union and UNESCO. Besides being a useful summary of the state of wireline and mobile broadband deployment and adoption around the world, it recommends telecommunications market liberalisation as the best way to improve infrastructure and, crucially, bring down costs for impoverished users in the developing world.

The report also delivers an unambiguous slap to governments that use their control over infrastructure to infringe on basic human rights, particularly freedom of speech…

Freedom is not the inevitable by-product of technological innovation and change. In parallel to the growth of the Internet, more controls and regulations have been applied in many countries. In many cases, these controls do not conform to international standards for justifiable limits on freedom of expression. Too often, they are not transparent, not intended for legitimate purposes, and not proportional to the types of speech they seek to limit.

The authors make a distinction between illegitimate controls on content and expression, and justifiable ones, such as those intended to safeguard children, fight spam or protect consumers. In doing so, they leave a familiar and conventionally diplomatic loophole for oppressive regimes.

But it was published by UN staff, not WikiLeaks or the Cato Institute. For an organisation where effective voting control rests with traditional surveillance states like China and Russia and born again ones like the U.S.A., it’s a remarkable document.