Internet Governance Squabble Expected To Hijack U.N. Meeting

Oct 31, 2005 (12:10 PM EST)

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The escalating scrap over control of the Internet that has pitted the U.S. government against the rest of the world is expected to take over the agenda at the World Summit on the Information Society, a United Nations meeting scheduled for November.

The original objective for the UN summit, set for Nov. 16-18 in Tunis, Tunisia, included a discussion of bringing the Internet to developing countries. But that will be overshadowed by the simmering debate over whether oversight of the Internet should be shared by governments around the world – or remain the responsibility of one in particular, the United States.

“This summit has been hijacked by the Internet governance people,” says Allen Z. Miller, senior vice president for global affairs at the Information Technology Association of America. “We’re adamantly opposed to U.N. involvement in the Internet.”

The association believes less-developed countries should focus on improving conditions at home that would make the Internet more likely to thrive -- like basic technical education, a sound legal environment and financial markets open to investment by foreign companies.

In the struggle over who owns the Internet, the United States currently holds all the supervision cards through the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Washington doesn’t plan on relinquishing its authority, despite objections from the United Nations, the European Union and such countries as Brazil, China, Cuba and Iran, who have all said recently that they would like a bigger say.

ICANN, a nonprofit corporation based in California, is the behind-the-scenes body that manages the Internet’s address book. It oversees the domain name and addressing system and makes sure that users of the Internet around the world can find all valid addresses.

Miller says the ITAA would like more countries involved with ICANN’s government advisory committee, with representatives from high levels of government.

He knows firsthand that many governments believe they are not adequately represented under the current system. Miller served as a member of the U.N.’s working group on Internet governance, the tinderbox that ignited much of the current debate when it published a July report recommending a greater U.N. role. He isn’t sure how the standoff will be resolved.

Other countries “could cut off their networks. But they would be cutting themselves off from a lot of economic opportunity that they get from the Internet.”

The Internet’s value as an engine of business shouldn’t be overlooked, says Paul Kurtz, executive director of the Cyber Security Industry Alliance, a public policy and advocacy group based in Arlington, Va.

“We ought to think about how nations can come together and talk about myriad issues about the growth of the Internet, making it available to less developed countries and using it as an engine of global economic growth," Kurtz says.

But security is the biggest worry for Kurtz, who is also a former senior director for critical infrastructure protection on the White House's Homeland Security Council.

“Security would suffer if we had multiple governments seeking to operate functions of the Internet and the domain name system. That would be a terrible mistake,” he says.

That’s not necessarily true, however, according to one academic. “One risk with having [ICANN] so closely linked to the U.S. is it becomes a target,” says Milton Mueller, an associate professor at Syracuse University and a lead contributor to the Internet Governance Project, a consortium of academics with expertise in international governance, Internet policy, and information technology.

“There’s no reason why similar [existing security] procedures couldn’t be set into place” with a new oversight system, consisting of many governments or even none at all, the scenario he prefers.

World governments are challenging ICANN, whose memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Commerce Department expires next September, but public interest groups like the Internet Governance Project have been opposing the organization for years, Mueller says. “We don’t want the Internet to be carved up into national territories,” Mueller says. “We want to keep the Internet global and free and open. The United States is as much of a threat to that as other countries.”

He would like to see the Tunis meeting consider a third alternative – a collection of individuals, academics, private interests and civil society groups in charge of Internet governance – but that appears unlikely.

Mueller believes ICANN is biased toward business interests like major telecom companies and domain name registrars at the expense of individual users, who lack a voice on the group’s board.

“There’s a real serious problem with individual user representation in ICANN that needs to be fixed,” he says.

In addition, Mueller says the group’s whois database violates privacy rights by requiring anyone registering a domain name to commit to displaying an email, phone number and personal address.

In Geneva last June, ICANN chief executive Paul Twomey, an Australian, brought to the UN’s working group for Internet governance a list of the ways in which ICANN was changing to accommodate local and regional groups.

He pointed out that ICANN had created a country code Names Supporting Organization, recognized regional Internet registries for Africa and Latin America and amended its generic top-level domain agreements so that dispute resolution is conducted through the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris. Also, its government advisory committee now has 100 members and observers.

The Center For Democracy and Technology, a public policy group in Washington, D.C., said in a briefing Oct. 19 that ICANN, despite its flaws, including growing in scope beyond its original charter, “has tallied a slate of accomplishments over the past seven years that would have been unheard of for an intergovernmental body operating under the same timeline.”

Besides ending monopolies in both the retail and wholesale domain name businesses, which have cut costs for consumers, ICANN has added new Internet domains like .info and .biz and has re-delegated some country code top level domain names to local organizations, the CDT said.

It also noted that ICANN has held its meetings on “every continent except Antarctica” and that none of its decisions have ever been vetoed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a division of the Commerce Department, which oversees ICANN.

But that misses the point, Mueller says. Many countries are angry that the U.S. government simply has the authority to change the root-zone file, which lists the top-level domains and their IP addresses.

“That information is controlled by the United States for the whole world,” Mueller says. “The United States could eliminate an entire country code if it wanted to. Nobody’s accusing them of wanting to do that, but it’s a strange feeling for the rest of the world that their existence as a top level domain depends on a unilateral U.S. decision.”

And while few people dispute that oversight from multiple governments would add an unhealthy dose of geopolitics into the mix, it’s na├»ve to believe that those disputes do not already exist within ICANN, he says.

As evidence, he points to the decision last month to postpone for the second time in as many months a decision on creating a .xxx domain for adult content. The U.S. government stepped in after opposition from conservative lobbying groups.