Debate during a United Nations conference this month will highlight a growing rift between the United States and the rest of the world over Internet governance that could result in changes to how the World Wide Web can be used.
The purpose of the World Summit on the Information Society, which opens in Tunis Nov. 16, is to generate ideas and strategies for extending the benefits of the Internet and other communications technology to the developing world. But these goals are being overshadowed by an effort among some of the world’s most influential governments to transfer management of the Internet infrastructure to an international body. The United States opposes the idea, and if no agreement can be reached there’s a possibility that countries could end up creating their own versions of the Internet with their own rules for its use—a move that would disrupt international business.
Currently the Internet is coordinated by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), an independent organization that has international representation but is based in the United States and has close ties to the U.S. government. ICANN assigns domain names, manages the Internet’s root servers and maps IP addresses to the domains.
A handful of countries, including Brazil, China and South Africa, have argued that de facto control of ICANN by the United States is incompatible with a global network. They maintain, for example, that the current governance structure does not accommodate domain names that use non-Western characters, making the Web less accessible to someone who doesn’t know a Western language.
The internationalization proposal seemed to be headed nowhere until September, when the European Union changed its position and decided to support it. “We are looking for a new model which allows Internet governance on the basis of cooperation with all governments and stakeholders because the Internet is a global infrastructure,” says Martin Selmayr, spokesman for EU Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding.
American and international business interests agree that it’s important to extend the reach of the Internet, but that these needs don’t warrant a new bureaucracy. “Bureaucracy would not be consistent with the dynamic nature of the Internet,” says Ayesha Hassan, senior policy manager and executive in charge of information and communication technologies for the International Chamber of Commerce.
The United States would have to agree to any change in how the Internet is governed, and that seems unlikely. That leaves advocates of internationalization with little recourse but the threat to build new regional or national Internets that would be incompatible with the current one. If this were to occur, the Internet would no longer be an open global network.
Negotiators planned to meet once more immediately before the summit. But the two sides are so deeply entrenched in their positions that at press time an agreement seemed unlikely, according to Heather Shaw, director for e-commerce and telecommunications policy at the United States Council for International Business.