Who's Running the Internet?

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TUNIS, TUNISIA -- Both the U.S. and the European Union are claiming victory in an agreement reached over Internet governance, viewed as one of the most contentious issues being debated at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) here this week.

The only problem is, both parties still remain at the opposite ends of the Internet governance debate. While the U.S. interprets the agreement to give it continued control over the Internet's core components, including its addressing systems, the E.U. reads it to open the door for Internet oversight to be shared by governments of the world.

Interpretations Vary

The political smoke here in Tunis is thick and heavy.

"The document is fabulous," said David Gross, ambassador for the bureau of economic and business affairs at the State Department and the person leading the U.S. delegation. "There were proposals to create a governmental organization that might control many technical aspects of the Internet and, through this, content as well. This is now off the table. There is no change to the U.S. role, no change to ICANN." ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, has overseen the Internet since 1988. it is a multinational group, but dominated by U.S. representatives.

Gross warned that opening the process to intergovernmental oversight could weigh down the Internet with bureaucracy and stifle innovation.

The only change that Gross acknowledged was an agreement to create a forum as a platform to discuss issues, such as cybercrime and spam. But he was quick to point out that the "forum will play no role in oversight."

As the E.U. sees it, however, the U.S. has consented to considering a new oversight body by agreeing to the wording "enhanced cooperation" in the document approved by delegates in the Internet governance group, said Martin Selmayr, a spokesperson for E.U. Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding.

"The role of ICANN shouldn't change but what has to change is the oversight role," Selmayr said.

The E.U. and other countries are demanding "oversight in cooperation and on equal footing," he said.

Jockeying for Influence

There appears to be plenty of room for interpretation, and the reason is clear: There's a lot at stake for the U.S., the E.U., and the world, for that matter.

There is concern that a stalemate in the talks over Net governance could result in governments breaking away to launch their own root file systems for managing IP traffic that, in the worst-case scenario, are not interconnected and interoperable, and that could lead to a fragmentation of the Internet and a possible breakdown in global data communications.

Countries including China, Brazil, and Russia lobbied intensively at the first summit in Geneva two years ago for changes to the current system. The E.U., which had initially supported the status quo position of the U.S., made a surprise turnabout in September when it agreed for the need for more governmental participation.

How do others interpret the agreement?

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said at a news conference that none of the governments attending WSIS have "come here to take over the role of ICANN." The technical aspects of the Internet, he said, should be left to technical people "to protect the Internet from the heat of day to day politics."

While honoring the role the U.S. has played in the Internet to date and acknowledging the global scope of the medium, Annan said it is "only normal that governments now want to be involved in Internet governance."

Changes Ahead?

Robert Shaw, Internet strategy and policy advisor at the International Telecommunication Union, points to powerful wording in the document that suggests a dramatic change--if not an end--to the dominate role of the U.S. in the Internet. "There are several paragraphs that call for changes in the way the Internet is governed today," he said. "And the U.S. has agreed to these. That's a fact."

For instance, countries should be involved in decisions regarding their own top-level domain. "This is a definite change over the present situation," Shaw said.

The document also recognizes that all governments should have "an equal role and responsibility for Internet governance and for ensuring the stability, security and continuity of the Internet" and in the development of "globally applicable principles on public-policy issues associated with the coordination and management of critical Internet resources."

The agreement also calls for the U.N. General Secretary to initiate a process by the first quarter of 2006 toward creating an "enhanced cooperation" or what the E.U. views as the seed for a new oversight body.

Although the agreement is nonbinding, Shaw said it will put the U.S. under growing political pressure.

"Whether or not the U.S. will accept any changes to its current role in managing the Internet remains to be seen," Shaw said. "Let's just say there's now a lot of momentum to do so."

Simon Taylor of the IDG News Service in Brussels contributed to this report.

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