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Who Should Control the Internet?

A U.N. sponsored summit on information technology starts November 16th in Tunis. While the meeting is intended to discuss how to foster Internet growth in developing countries, observers say it’s likely that the Tunis summit will be a struggle over who should control the Internet.

From its inception in the early 1990s, the Internet has grown into a global marketplace, a forum for ideas and political expression, and the greatest repository of information the world has ever seen. The Internet has become so vital, and so powerful a tool, that nations are now vying to control its structures and how it operates.

In 1998, the U.S. Commerce Department put key aspects of the Internet under the control of a private corporation called ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN is in charge of domain names, meaning what a website is called, along with web address indentifiers such as dot-com, dot-net, etcetera and the two-letter suffix each country has been given. ICANN also has certain Internet policy powers. For instance, it can remove websites from the Internet, and can decide who can sell and register domain names.

Multinational Move to Take Control

The European Union and some individual countries such as China, Iran, Syria and Cuba object to what they see as U.S. dominance of the Internet and ICANN’s present powers. Syracuse University information technology professor Milton Mueller sets forth their position.

“A lot of the world’s governments - not just the E.U. - feel [that] because they are governments, they should make public policy and not this private corporation based in the U.S. that happens to have a contract with the United States government. Their idea is that the world’s governments should somehow get together and set policy principles that ICANN would then follow,” he says.

Mr. Mueller says those countries have proposed that Internet control be given over to an independent international body that is not aligned with or connected to any single government.

Control Issue Coming to a Head at Tunis Conference

This disagreement over ICANN and Internet control is expected to dominate the U.N. – sponsored “World Summit on the Information Society” which begins November 16th in Tunis. The summit was originally intended to focus on how to spread the Internet throughout the developing world.

Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America disputes the position of the E.U. and others. He says ICANN already has a mechanism for governments to have a say in how the Internet operates.

“It’s called the “Government Advisory Committee,” he says "and it does provide formal input to ICANN before ICANN makes decisions on important issues. So the idea that there is no way for governments to have their views heard is simply not true.”

Arguments Supporting the Status Quo

Those who do not want ICANN’s powers diminished or given to a third-party outside the United States raise concerns about what governments might do if they controlled key Internet structures. One hypothetical example involves China, which has the two-letter country code “CN.” ICANN’s defenders say Beijing’s hostility to Taiwan might prompt it to demand that Taiwan’s two-letter country code, “TW" be abolished, and all Internet traffic on that island be placed under the “CN” mainland code. That, critics say, might enable Beijing to effectively control the Internet for people in Taiwan.

Those critics, including Paul Kurtz, the executive director of the Cyber Security Internet Alliance in Washington, also say taking the Internet out of ICANN’s hands could lead to censorship.

“Governmental control of the Internet," he says "would ultimately get into the question of content. And, with a variety of countries, [and] with a variety of different opinions as to what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, and what they think their population should or should not see, we’re going to get into filtering of content. And that is a very dangerous situation.”

"Manicured" Webs Limit Content Access

Harvard University information technology specialist John Palfrey says there are countries where this is already taking place. He uses the term “manicured web” to describe how these nations strongly restrict the content of the Internet and block access to many if not most websites outside their borders.

“There are two countries in particular which have a 'manicured' web," he says. "One is Burma, which has allowed people to only access a “web” that includes pages they [the government] has selected. Another country is North Korea. There’s a very, very small web available to people unless, of course, they find some way around the censors blocking them.”

Mr. Palfrey says the U.N. summit in Tunis should take up the issue of “manicured” webs as a danger to the Internet’s tradition of openness and freedom of expression. But he admits that the governments that censor the web are unlikely to bow to outside pressure and change.

The Likely Outcome in Tunis

While the European Union and others demand changes in Internet control, Kenneth Neil Cukier, The Economist magazine’s Technology Correspondent, doesn’t think those countries will get anywhere in Tunis.

“Ultimately, there’s very little they [the E.U. and aligned nations] can do to rebel. They can’t wean themselves away from the U.S. controlled Internet because it’s so powerful and so important, and also because the U.S. controls the actual physical infrastructure by which the Internet is run in terms of its addressing system. And if the U.S. is going to change, it’s going to be almost an act of charity.”

And The Economist’s Kenneth Cukier says such charity is highly unlikely. In June, the U.S. Commerce Department put out a four-paragraph position statement that made it clear that there is no thought in Washington of allowing control of the Internet to be changed from its present structures.

Objective: No One Left Behind

For many observers, the Tunis “World Summit on the Information Society” will have failed its mission if it does not concentrate on how to bring Internet access to people in developing countries around the world. They cite statistics showing that only one billion people -- roughly 15% of the world's total population -- can presently "surf the web." These observers say the benefits of the Internet are too important for the rest of humanity to be left behind.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.