U.S. May Face World at Internet Governance Summit

International Telecommunication Union Secretary-General Yoshio Utsumi speaks last month in Geneva during a preparatory conference for the World Summit on the Information Society.
International Telecommunication Union Secretary-General Yoshio Utsumi speaks last month in Geneva during a preparatory conference for the World Summit on the Information Society. (By Martial Trezzini -- Associated Press)
By Jonathan Krim
Thursday, October 13, 2005

Next month, world diplomats will travel to Tunisia to tackle a topic so dense that it normally clears a room in seconds: how the Internet is governed.

But the United Nations-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society could be the scene of an international brawl, with some claiming that the core freedoms and integrity of the global network are at risk.

The battle centers on how much control the United States will continue to have in overseeing the Internet's plumbing.

This sounds like geeky stuff, but it matters for everyday users. The technical rules for how networks and computers find and recognize each other can determine how freely and securely information moves around.

These matters are the province of the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, under a contract with the Commerce Department that expires next year.

The Commerce Department exercises its contractual oversight lightly, adopting the position that government should be involved with Internet governance as little as possible. To date, it has not overruled any ICANN decisions.

Several other countries, particularly many in the developing world, object to continuing U.S. supremacy. As the Internet penetrates deeper into societies around the globe, many nations want the international community to supplant the United States as primary overseer.

The United States suspects that some of these governments want to try to control the Internet to stifle free expression and preserve dictatorial control.

The argument has been simmering for some time, and several proposals have been put forth by a U.N. working group for more international oversight, through the United Nations or other entities.

Countries such as Iran, China, Saudi Arabia and Brazil have been especially vocal, mirroring other splits in the United Nations over a variety of issues, including the war in Iraq.

But things turned red hot late last month when the European Union infuriated the United States by endorsing the idea of international authority.

Attempting to strike a pose between the United States and countries that want a new Internet governing body, the E.U. said an international "forum" should be created to set policy principles for ICANN and adjudicate complaints.


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