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Questions Remain Over US Internet Dominance at Tunis Summit


Despite an agreement at a United Nations Information Technology Summit in Tunis to allow the United States to continue exercising oversight of the Internet, complaints about Washington's dominant role over the network still linger. Even though the issue has been resolved for now, demands for shared governance of the Internet are not likely to go away.

The agreement left the United States in effective control over the Internet's addressing system but also created an open-ended international forum where governments, businesses and civil society representatives will raise what they consider to be important Internet issues.

The United States claimed victory, saying the deal reaffirmed the U.S. government's oversight role, did not interfere with the quasi-independent organization that manages the Internet's day-to-day operation, and did not create an international agency that, in the U.S. view, might have interfered with the free flow of information.

But the European Union, which had vaguely talked about internationalizing the net, is happy that Washington has acceded to its idea that the forum be set up so that governments can discuss public policy issues relating to the Internet.

Information technology analyst Julian Morris, of the London-based International Policy Network, says that the deal guarantees that information will continue to flow freely on the Internet.

"Crucially, what's been decided is that ICANN, [Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers], the body which is largely independent but has some control functions managed by the United States government, will remain in charge of managing the domain name system, which means that you won't get interference from outside bodies such as undemocratic governments telling ICANN what it can and cannot do, which domains are legitimate, which aren't," he said. "The risk was that there would be an intergovernmental body set up which would have on its panel Saudi Arabia, Iran, China and other countries whose interest would be in controlling, restricting, preventing certain domains from existing."

Mr. Morris says China, for example, has long questioned why Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province, should have its own domain name, TW.

Some diplomats say countries dissatisfied by the U.S. oversight role might be motivated to create their own addressing system. That could splinter the Internet in such a way that two people typing in the same web address in different countries may reach different sites.

Still, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says the decision to create a forum where the views of governments and other entities on Internet matters can be voiced is a positive step forward.

"The United States has exercised its responsibilities fairly and admirably. And yet, the Internet has become a tool which is very important for most governments, whether in the area of education, social issues or environmental issues, and it's a very big part of their communication network," he said. "It is only normal that they would want to be involved in the discussion of issues of governance. As to whether this issue will be opened up again or not, I think it's a question of evolution, and only time can tell."

U.N. officials say the new arrangement will be tested when the forum holds its first formal meeting next year in Athens.

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