A United Nations summit on the future of the information society has opened in Tunis after negotiators struck a deal to leave the United States in charge of the Internet's addressing system. The agreement paves the way for the gathering to focus on how poor nations can benefit from the digital revolution.
The deal hammered out late Tuesday night leaves the day-to-day management of the Internet in the hands of a California-based organization known as ICANN, or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Several countries, including China and Iran, had demanded that an international body under U.N. auspices oversee the net. But the United States argued that any such body would stifle innovation and increase the risk of censorship of the Internet by undemocratic regimes. The European Union weighed in with a compromise proposal calling for an international forum to discuss how the Internet should be run.
U.S. officials told reporters Wednesday that, under the deal, instead of transferring the management of the Internet to an international body such as the United Nations, an international forum will be created in which governments, the private sector and civil society organizations can address such concerns as cybercrime, viruses or junk mail. But they stressed that the forum will have no binding authority.
Assistant U.S. Secretary of Commerce Michael Gallagher says the agreement ensures that the day-to-day operation of the Internet will remain with ICANN and the private sector.
"The document is a great success for the private sector," he said. "The document is a great success for the future of the Internet. The Internet lives to innovate another day."
The summit, which was originally conceived to address the so-called digital divide between information haves and have-nots, can now focus on that task.
Two years ago in Geneva, a similar summit pledged to make the net accessible to everybody by the year 2015. But U.N. officials say that only 14 percent of the world's population is on line.
A voluntary fund, intended to help finance information technology projects in developing countries, has only raised six million dollars in cash and pledges.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, addressing the summit's opening session, called for more contributions, saying the time has come to move from diagnosis of the divide to deeds aimed at narrowing it.