UN Internet agenda tied to George Soros

Josh Peterson | Tech Editor

Frank La Rue, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression who made summer headlines when he proclaimed Internet access as a basic human right, conducted his research and delivered his conclusions with the support of organizations funded by liberal financier George Soros, The Daily Caller has learned.

La Rue’s statements on Internet freedom caused alarm among conservatives who believe “net neutrality” is a vehicle for a government takeover of the Internet.

Advocates of net neutrality, a position championed by the billionaire Soros and by the U.N., argue governments must regulate private censorship and bandwidth online to ensure it remains open and free. Soros, a philanthropist known for supporting liberal causes, has articulated his belief in the need for greater U.S. government regulation of the Internet.

While Soros is known among supporters as an advocate of pro-democracy causes, critics see the Open Society Institute — which he founded and chairs — as his instrument for funding and supporting his preferred causes.

For example, Canada’s Adbusters Media Foundation, credited for initially organizing the Occupy Wall Street protests, has benefited from the Tides Foundation, a frequent Open Society Institute grantee. Tides is organized in a fashion that typically obscures the relationship between incoming and outgoing philanthropic dollars.

At a speech in April 2011 at the Soros-funded Central European University (CEU) in Hungary, La Rue talked at length about global fact-finding missions — sponsored by Soros’s OSI and the Swedish government — on which he had embarked during 2010 to assess how unrestricted Internet access could meet citizens’ human rights needs.

His missions were the result of a decision in 2010 by the Internet Governance Forum, an international Internet policy group responsible to the U.N. Secretary General, to transform the net neutrality debate into one of human rights in order to generate further international support.

At CEU on June 1 at another meeting organized and sponsored by the Open Society Justice Initiative — a separate Soros-funded non-profit — La Rue signed the Declaration on Freedom of Expression and the Internet. Two days later, he declared on behalf of the U.S. that Internet access is a basic human right.

According to the U.N., La Rue urged governments last Friday to ensure “that the Internet is made widely available, accessible and affordable to all, and to guarantee the free flow of information online.”

U.N. representatives with La Rue’s office in Geneva, Switzerland did not return The Daily Caller’s emails or phone calls seeking comment on La Rue’s statements.

Asked for comment by The Daily Caller on Tuesday, Open Society Justice Institute senior legal officer Sandra Coliver confirmed the existence of a working relationship between La Rue and Open Society Foundations senior program manager Stewart Chisholm. Coliver declined to describe the extent of that relationship or to comment on the role of Soros’s sprawling advocacy empire in shaping La Rue’s policy recommendations.

In an email late Wednesday night, however, Chisholm told TheDC that “OSF provided support” for the “broader, stake-holder consultation process” that served as La Rue’s platform. He described the goal of that process as “informing the office of the Special Rapporteur as to Internet freedom challenges in the respective regions.”

“Ultimately though,” Chisholm added, ” it was up to the Special Rapporteur [La Rue] to decide how, and in which context, to make use of these findings and recommendations for his own report.”

Open Society Foundations is Soros’s umbrella group encompassing more than 30 initiatives, of which the Open Society Institute is one.

In an August report to the U.N. General Assembly, La Rue cited the Arab Spring as an example of how people can exercise free speech through the Internet to aid in the overthrow of oppressive regimes.

He also called on governments to ensure freedom of expression except in cases of racism or the violation of other international human rights. La Rue also told governments they should ensure that free broadband access is available within their countries.

Conservatives who objected to La Rue’s statements assert that the Internet flourished and prospered exactly because of the absence of government regulations they feel would stifle economic innovation and growth. And policies aimed at stopping Internet providers from engaging in blocking, censoring, and other discriminatory practices remind some conservatives of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski’s push for net neutrality.

Mike Wendy, president of MediaFreedom.org, a market-oriented tech policy non-profit organization, cautioned that power to regulate the Internet would not always be used for the greater good. Wendy told The Daily Caller that NPR-style reporting would be considered “good” speech and promoted over other types of political speech.

“Such ‘balancing’ is not out of the realm of possibility,” he said. “Just look at the history of radio and TV regulation to get an idea of where Internet regulation can go.”

Soros’s involvement is equally troubling to some observers. Scott Cleland, president of Precursor, a Fortune 500 consultancy focused on Internet competition, wrote in 2008, “George Soros is really the poster child for net-neutrality-ish thinking, which is that the few, the truly wise, like Mr. Soros, know what is truly best for everyone else.” Cleland also manages the NetCompetition.org website.

La Rue’s recommendations, however, resonate with net neutrality supporters. His recommendations anticipate policies promoted and defended by Free Press, the Social Science Research Council and other liberal advocacy groups.

In a June essay published by the Social Science Research Council, American Assembly at Columbia University vice president Joe Karaganis concluded that La Rue’s report “is one of the strongest official statements yet to describe Internet access as part of a fundamental right to expression that supersedes intellectual property rights.”

Clashing with this view, however, is the distinctly American view that free speech can only be guaranteed through the protection of property rights.

“The free flow of information worldwide depends on governmental restraint and respect for property rights,” said Ryan Radia, associate director of technology studies at Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Radia stressed to TheDC that the Internet and future worldwide networks were far too important to leave in the hands of governments. “If nations follow the advice of the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression and make broadband networks wards of the state, we risk turning the Internet into a dreary public utility like any other.”

In a position paper published in April by the Open Society Foundations, Andrew Puddephatt, former Director of the international human rights organization Article 19, wrote that the Internet was already a “public communications utility” essential to societal needs.

In response to La Rue’s statements, Less Government president Seton Motley explained that very few countries, if any, have free speech protections like those built into the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

“The First Amendment was written and ratified to protect our free speech from government, which is the situation we have on the Internet now without net neutrality,” Motley explained. “There is no government mechanism right now to censor free speech on the Web, which is what is what net neutrality is for.”

Motley and other free market advocates have drawn a line in the sand — a line they hope La Rue, Soros, and the U.N. don’t march across.

“The government, without net neutrality, has no way to censor free speech on the web,” Motley said. “How are we protecting free speech by inserting government?”

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