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Internet Governance: Who’s in Command of the Information Superhighway?


Navigating the Internet has never been easier. With just the click of a mouse you can connect to millions of websites anywhere in the world. As its importance grows, many nations worry that the U.S. has too much control of the digital superhighway. VOA's Jim Bertel reports this issue will take center stage at this week's World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia. (November 16 - 18)

It began 30 years ago as a research project funded by the Pentagon. Today, the Internet is a fundamental part of the world's communication infrastructure, transforming the way we do business.

Because it has become the backbone of global commerce, there is a growing desire among many nations to have a say in running it.

The United Nations is sponsoring the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia. The growing feud over Internet governance is expected to dominate the meeting. The debate is over whether Washington should continue as the ultimate arbitrator of all web domains - such as dot com or dot org.

The day-to-day handling of this is done by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, a private organization set up by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Adam Thierer is Director of the Center for Digital Media Freedom at The Progress and Freedom Foundation a think tank that studies the digital revolution.

Mr. Thierer explains that the ICANN has limitations.

"ICANN doesn't do anything in terms of issues like taxation, or freedom of speech, or libel laws or intellectual property. It doesn't really have any say there. It doesn't really have what you would call legitimacy like a government or an international organization would."

He says many nations are calling for a formal international body that has the authority to impose rules on the Internet. The European Union has joined other countries in seeking multinational control. The United States has flatly said no.

Julian Pain, head of the Internet Freedom Desk at the journalistic organization Reporters without Borders agrees with this effort; up to a point.

"But the problem is who is criticizing the U.S. position? Mainly the most repressive regimes on earth: China, Iran and Cuba are sticking together to get the management of the Internet back to the U.N. and we believe that would be a terrible mistake."

Mr. Pain says until the E.U. or someone else introduces some workable solution, he thinks it should remain under U.S. control. Adam Thierer says why change something that works? "The Internet is really the greatest technology of freedom that has ever been created. And it would be a real shame if a global regulatory bureaucracy allowed some more repressive countries to get in and meddle with that or stifle it in any way."

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has been working to mediate the dispute, writing in a newspaper column that the U.N. has no plans to police or otherwise takeover the Internet.

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