Tuesday, November 08, 2005

U.S. Dominance of World Wide Web Could Spur Backlash at U.N. Summit

Published on Tuesday, November 8, 2005 by the San Francisco Chronicle
by Edward Epstein
 
When hundreds of millions of people around the globe log on to the Internet every day to shop, chat, check on their investments or sports scores or research their homework, the last thing they think of is the dull but vital inner workings of the Web.

But control of those innards -- like domain names such as .com, the numeric addresses that most users never see and maintenance of files that correctly route Internet traffic -- is at the heart of a simmering international dispute. It pits many foreign governments against the United States, the home of the Internet and of a government-chartered nonprofit company based in Marina Del Rey (Los Angeles County) that carries out the work that has fostered the Internet's explosive growth.

The issue could come to a head next week in Tunisia at a U.N.-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society, which is scheduled for Nov. 16-18, and follows a U.N. session two years ago in Geneva that ended in stalemate.

A host of nations, including those in the European Union and others such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia that aren't exactly champions of free speech, want to break the U.S. stranglehold on Internet governance. In part, their stand is prompted by their feeling that the United States, the world's sole superpower whose hard-driving media corporations are seen as dominating global markets, shouldn't have sole control over a medium that is transforming so much of daily life.

The Bush administration says the current system has worked well and shouldn't be altered. Instead, it wants to allow more private companies to handle some of the functions now run by a variety of firms that include Mountain View-based VeriSign, which recently signed on to maintain control of its portion of the Net through 2012.

Many members of Congress go further, arguing that it would be an outrage if control of the Internet were ceded, even partly, to regimes that squelch free speech and human rights.

"Turning the Internet over to countries with problematic human rights records, muted free speech laws and questionable taxation practices will prevent the Internet from remaining the thriving medium it has become today," said Rep. John Doolittle, R-Rocklin (Placer County), a leader of the Congressional Internet Caucus. The caucus has introduced a House resolution expressing the will of Congress that day-to-day control of the Internet's operations remain in the United States.

The looming battle stems from the 1998 creation of the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Operating under an agreement with the U.S. Commerce Department but largely free of government interference, the corporation goes about its work largely shielded from the Internet-using public's view. VeriSign, for instance, manages the .com and .net domains under a contract with the corporation.

Since 1998, the Internet has continued its explosive growth. Today, the corporation maintains 13 root servers to handle its workload. Nine are in the United States, including two in California. The corporation has an office in Brussels and has an international advisory committee.

But many foreign governments question why control of the Internet should continue to reside in the United States. Their timing couldn't be better. The charter for the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers expires next year, and the Bush administration wants to see its operations turned over to the private sector, even while it insists control remain in the United States.

The European Union recently proposed a "new international cooperation model,'' but it didn't offer a specific plan. There have been warnings, however, that if the Europeans' demands aren't settled soon, perhaps at the upcoming U.N. conference, the Internet could tear apart, meaning that U.S. users might not be able to access foreign sites.

"We have to have a platform where leaders of the world can express their thoughts about the Internet," Viviane Reding, the European Union's information technology commissioner, recently told the Guardian, a British newspaper. "If they have the impression that the Internet is dominated by one nation, and it does not belong to all the nations, then the result could be that the Internet falls apart.''

Other countries, including Iran and Pakistan, have proposed a more heavy-handed approach. They want to create an international council to which the corporation would report. Some countries that might favor that approach, such as China, limit their citizens' access to Web sites that authorities find politically objectionable.

The U.S. position is that it won't accept a new international governing body for the Internet. "The Internet's security and stability are best maintained through the current systems of technical controls,'' the State Department said.

With the Tunisia summit looming, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has tried to defuse the controversy.

In an op-ed article in the Washington Post last Saturday, Annan denied that the U.N. had a plan to take over the Internet. "Nothing could be farther from the truth," he wrote. "The United Nations wants only to ensure the Internet's global reach, and that effort is at the heart of this summit.

"The Internet has become so important for almost every country's economy and administration that it would be naive to expect government not to take an interest.''

U.S. technology leaders, while not wild about the corporation's ties to the federal government, say the status quo is preferable to getting a host of governments involved.

"Ideally, the private sector should be in full control of the Internet," said Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation in Washington. "But for now, the U.S. must retain control in order to ensure the Internet is safe, open and free for all to use."

©2005 San Francisco Chronicle

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