Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Friday, November 11, 2005
The thorny issue of who controls the Internet is set to dominate next week's global Internet summit, sponsored by the United Nations and hosted by Tunisia.
Preparatory talks have set the stage for a standoff between the U.S., which has historically overseen the Internet with minimal government involvement, and other nations that want an end to the status quo.
A group of developing nations, including China, Cuba, Iran and Brazil, is pressing for the U.S. to cede control to the U.N., while the European Union has proposed as an alternative a new, multilateral arbitration and dispute resolution forum.
U.S. officials have rejected the proposals, and a French government official was quoted as saying on Thursday that France did not expect the U.S. to back down at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which runs Nov. 16-18.
"It is possible that we only reach a consensus [in Tunisia] on the fact that discussions need to be pursued," Jean-Michel Hubert told a press conference.
Currently, a private-sector group in California called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) supervises the Net, assigning domain names and addresses.
Although countries like China demand an end to what it calls America's "monopoly," in reality ICANN's 15 voting board members include four each from Latin America and Asia Pacific, two each from Africa and Europe, and three from North America.
Its president is an Australian and staff from 13 countries work on three continents. Moreover, an ICANN governmental advisory committee, which meets 3-4 times a year, is open to representatives of all national governments.
"Advice provided by the [advisory committee] is taken seriously, and should the board reject advice, it must state why," ICANN said in a statement over the summer.
'Leave things as they are'
A U.N. working group on Internet governance, set up to make proposals ahead of the summit, has suggested several possible models for the future, including a Global Internet Council "anchored in the United Nations."
Such a body, "consisting of members from governments with appropriate representation from each region ... would take over the functions relating to international Internet governance currently performed by [ICANN]," the group said in a report released in July.
Those who oppose U.N. or other multilateral control note that some of the governments pushing hardest for a change are also the world's most repressive when it comes to preventing free speech on the Internet.
"Do we really want the countries that censor the Internet and throw its users in prison to be in charge of regulating the flow of information on it?" the independent media group Reporters Without Frontiers (RSF) asked Thursday, citing China, Cuba and others.
The Paris-based organization also rejected the E.U. suggestion, calling it "too vague to be a credible alternative."
"It has to be admitted that the U.S. has managed to develop the Internet without major problems and that it broadly respects online freedom of expression," it said.
"So let us hope an acceptable compromise - that reduces government intervention to a minimum and guarantees freedom of expression - will be found at the WSIS.
"If not, it would be best to leave things as they are."
Support for retaining the status quo has come from other Europeans as well.
Former Swedish Prime Mminister and international diplomat Carl Bildt wrote in a recent op-ed that while not necessarily perfect, the current system of governance "has worked."
"It would be profoundly dangerous to now set up an international mechanism, controlled by governments, to take over the running of the Internet," he said. "Not only would this play into the hands of regimes bent on limiting the freedom that the Internet can bring, it also risks stifling innovation and ultimately endangering the security of the system."
Bildt criticized the stance taken by the E.U., saying "we Europeans should be as keen as anyone to preserve the essence of a system that has worked amazingly well."
"If that entails leaving some ultimate safeguard powers in the hands of the United States, that's certainly better than having theocrats or autocrats around the world getting their hands on the levers of control."
ETNO, the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association, has also made its views clear.
"ETNO has reiterated its support to the current system based on ICANN, in accordance with its principles of transparency and geographical representation," the Brussels-based industry policy group says on its website.
"Any proposal likely to affect negatively global connectivity, security or reliability of Internet should be avoided."
ETNO also called for the role of the ICANN governmental advisory committee to be maintained and strengthened.
'A pivotal moment'
In the U.S., warnings about the struggle for Internet control have come from numerous analysts, commentators and lawmakers.
"Putting the U.N. in charge of one of the world's most important technological wonders and economic engines is out of the question," Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) said in a statement earlier this year.
Coleman has played a leading role in investigating corruption in the U.N.
Heritage Foundation scholars Brett Schaefer, John Tkacik and James Gattuso said last week the summit in Tunisia would be "a pivotal moment for the future prospects of economic and political freedom."
"Should the U.N. gain control of the Internet, it would give meddlesome governments the opportunity to censor and regulate the medium until its usefulness as a vehicle for freedom of expression and international competition is crippled," they argued in a web memo.
"As the overseer of the domain name system, the United States has taken a liberal approach in keeping with its liberal values," says technology writer and commentator Kenneth Neil Cukier.
"There is no guarantee that an intergovernmental system would continue on such a course, and so even committed internationalists ought to be wary of changing how the system is run," he wrote in the current issue of the Council on Foreign Relations' publication, Foreign Affairs.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in an article published last week that the world body had no designs to seize control of the Internet.
Subscribe to the free CNSNews.com daily E-Brief.
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.