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Cyberspace and the United Nations
by Philippe Quéau, Director, Information and Informatics Division, UNESCO


Management of humanity's global goods such as the high seas, the ozone layer, geostationary orbits, the human genome, public domain information or also open standards and the Internet TCP/IP protocol, needs to be given a more prominent place on the world's political agenda as one of the burning issues affecting the global common good or the global 'res publica'. Intangible common good must also be taken into consideration in developing a strategic framework for global governance. For example, the huge but controversial arena of intellectual property should be dealt with, not merely from the viewpoints of legal or commercial interests, but also from a more ethical and political outlook (analysis of the different sectorial interests intervening on the subject, philosophical reflection on the fundamental legal principles). Particularly crucial are questions related to the rights of users and especially "fair use" exemptions to copyright legislation purpose for teaching and scientific research.

The concepts ruling intellectual property issues are not just a technical matter. They involve losers and winners, conflicts of interests and trade-offs among different socio-economic groups or among different countries. Who has the political credentials to make the necessary arbitrages for the "higher common good of mankind" in these highly crucial topics? How can we prevent the vested interests from prevailing over the public interest?

All United Nations bodies need to adopt a common policy for the protection of the physical and intangible global goods. They also bear a responsibility to look for alternative ways to finance the development and the universal provision of global goods. In "Global Public Goods, International Cooperation in the 21st Century" (New York, 1999), published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), innovative solutions have been put forward in this respect. It is suggested that " a link could be forged between patent fees and the financing of a global knowledge bank. For example, a part of WIPO’s earnings could be used to support neglected research on tropical diseases and agriculture—and basic education for all. It could also be used to support access of poor countries to critical but still patented knowledge. Constructing a closer link between UNESCO and WIPO could thus be a step towards creating a knowledge bank, or at least towards creating a global hub for such an institution".

This line of thought converges with the idea of UNDP to levy a global tax on Internet use in order to finance global development projects and to facilitate a really worldwide universal access to information.

Global public goods are underfunded because there are no global mechanisms to ensure continuous adequate taxation at the global level. National interests do not necessarily converge with the global interest, and there is not yet a global democratic government, able to make the needed political choices to enhance the provision of global goods. We then urgently need to find systemic sources of funding for global goods. The Nobel Prize laureate James Tobin proposed more than twenty years ago to levy a tax on all financial transactions in order to reduce global speculation. This kind of feedback mechanism should be generalized, by tapping from all sources of global flows.

What kind of information and knowledge do we need to strengthen global goods? And how do we fund the provision of these global goods? The fact that sectorial interests make themselves more influential than public interest to benefit from public goods has been recognized as the "Tragedy of the Commons".

That private commercial and financial concerns have a vested interest in making themselves more influential than the public interest to benefit from public The UN system must examine and seek to address this specific bias. This is an essential criterion for good global governance in a rapidly shrinking planet.

If we wish to civilize globalization, we must start with the legal, political and social construction of universal access to global public goods, relying on permanent and global sources of funding.

  Mr Philippe Quéau is Director of the Information and Informatics Division, UNESCO

Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.

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