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Countries challenge US control of Internet
By Christopher Rhoads (The Wall Stree Journal)
Updated: 2005-10-25 17:07

A growing number of countries, including China, Brazil, India and Cuba -- as well as the European Union -- are questioning U.S. control over the Internet.

The Internet is managed by a nonprofit private organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or Icann, set up by the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1998 and based in Marina del Rey, Calif. Icann has an international advisory body, but the U.S. government retains veto power over all decisions -- such as the creation of new Web domains.

Icann oversees domain names, a database of Web addresses and other standards. Such measures ensure, for example, that a user plugging in a Web address will connect to a single Web site with that name. Though arcane and out-of-view of users, the procedures are critical to making the Internet work.

But several countries, led by developing nations, now argue that since the Internet is a global tool, no one country should control it. They contend that decisions should fall under the jurisdiction of an international body, such as the United Nations. Their argument received an unexpected boost late last month when an EU commissioner proposed removing U.S. oversight of Icann, reversing the EU's support of the current arrangement.

The proposal was met by a storm of criticism from surprised U.S. officials, as well as from some European companies that worried such a change would politicize the Internet, add bureaucracy and hinder its innovative nature.

"We look at the Internet's success and want to make sure we keep the recipe for it," said David Gross, the lead U.S. negotiator on the matter, in an interview. "If you modify it, the risk is that you come out with something far worse."

Viviane Reding, the EU commissioner for Internet and media affairs who made the proposal, told the BBC in a recent interview: "There must not be any government involvement in the day-to-day management of the Internet, neither one of the U.S. government nor by any other government."

A U.N. information society summit to take place in Tunis, Tunisia, in mid-November will address the issue.

Experts place the current tiff in the context of other nations' discomfort with the U.S. as the world's only superpower, unafraid of taking unilateral action. In June, the U.S. Department of Commerce released a statement that the U.S. would retain control over the governing of the Internet, at least for the foreseeable future. Previously, the U.S. had indicated that it would sever any government connection to Icann.

The matter intensified in August, when the U.S. government asked Icann to table an initiative to add a new domain name for pornography Web sites. Icann had tentatively approved the new domain name, called .xxx, several months earlier, but at the last moment the Department of Commerce removed its support, after it said it received thousands of letters of complaint from conservative Christian groups and others.

Regardless of the merits of the decision, the move was proof to critics of Icann that it is controlled by the U.S., said Lee McKnight, an associate professor for information studies at Syracuse University. "Until August, the U.S. had not done anything to upset other governments," said Mr. McKnight. "Then just before these meetings, it did do something unilaterally."

The original idea behind Icann was to keep decisions about the Internet's architecture in the private sector and largely free of government meddling.

"Governments have not really understood the inner workings of the Internet," said Mr. McKnight. In the past two years, "they have gotten educated and now they want to get their hands on the levers."

Such rethinking about the Internet has arisen in part because of its global growth and growing importance in many areas. Widely available to the public and for commercial purposes only in the past decade or so, the Internet now has close to a billion users, estimates the Paris-based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. In that time, the Internet has become a critical means for conducting business, as well as for receiving other services, such as video and phoning.

Few expect any immediate changes to the current structure from the U.N. summit, since the U.S. government would need to approve them.

But as some countries are beginning to understand, they do have some leverage in how the Internet works -- with potentially huge ramifications.

For instance, governments can assert control over the Internet network used in their respective countries, blocking certain types of Web sites and other information.

Experts such as Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet governance at Oxford University, fear that if such "cantonization" increases, the value of the Internet as a global, interoperable tool diminishes.

That's because the economic and social strength of the Internet derives from its open and decentralized architecture, enabling access to users anywhere in the world. If governments began to create their own distinct Internets, that would undermine the essence of what makes the Internet so powerful.

"There has been a misconception -- and a helpful one -- among many government bureaucrats that the Internet is a non-geographic phenomenon," said Mr. Zittrain. "But it can be reworked to correspond to national jurisdictions and boundaries."

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