Representatives from around the world are set to meet in Tunisia for a major international conference to discuss the future management of the Internet. The issues set out in the World Summit on the Information Society's (WSIS) first meeting in 2003 include universal access to the Internet and network security. The agenda this time is likely to be dominated by the contentious issue of which country controls the Internet.
Since it was developed by Pentagon-funded researchers in the 1960s and 1970s, the decentralized computer network known as the Internet has operated relatively smoothly. A California-based organization, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), manages the so-called Domain Name System (DNS), which assigns unique Internet names and addresses.
ICANN was created in 1998. Although it is private and includes international members on its board, the U.S. Department of Commerce vetos or approves its decisions.
The issue of American control over ICANN is in the spotlight, as calls for a more representative global body to manage the Internet are getting louder.
Some proposals under consideration call for replacing the United States as ICANN's overseer, with a new international political structure organized like the United Nations. But in his comments prior to the summit, Assistant Secretary of Commerce Michael Gallagher set the stage for a showdown.
"The United States does not support top down, inter-governmental regulation or control of the Internet, as called for in the recent WSIS-related proposals," said Mr. Gallagher. "We will not agree to the creation of a U.N. or other governmental, bureaucratic oversight mechanism for the Internet, and we do not believe in adding an inter-governmental layer of bureaucracy over such a dynamic medium as the Internet."
Internet governance has historically been the U.S. government's responsibility because the network was created and developed in the United States.
Now, though, many developing countries, including China and Iran, say they feel the Net should be managed more equitably. A Chinese spokeswoman said the distribution of Internet domain names involves all countries, and should be managed in what she described as a "fair" and "workable" way. European Commissioner Viviane Reding warned that if the United States does not agree to some kind of agreement, the world could face the possibility of what she called a "fragmented Internet," with other countries setting up their own systems.
Washington has argued that the current system should not be changed, saying that heavier governmental control would stifle crucial private sector innovation.
This way of thinking has led some experts to say that nobody can control the Internet. Others say they believe the argument over Internet governance is, at best, a sideshow debate.
"This is completely irrelevant. Let me repeat that, this is completely irrelevant. Domain names are nearly meaningless at this point," said Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University.
He points out that the presence of private companies, such as search engine Google, keeps the Net from being centrally controlled.
"If you couldn't find IBM at IBM.com, what would you do? Yeah, you'd Google it, and there you'd be," he noted. "Now, nobody's talking about well, wait a minute, shouldn't there be an international consortium to run Google, to make sure that when you type in IBM and are feeling lucky, it goes to IBM rather than Irving B. Moskowitz? Well, no. Google's a private company. It has market share."
Professor Zittrain concludes that the main controversy over the Internet is not who controls it, but who can profit from it.
"The only thing really at stake in domain names is basically money, and, not to be underestimated, symbolic pride," he explained.
Selling rights to Internet domain names can be a lucrative business. The issue of national pride is addressed by News Corporation's Rick Lane. He says he is concerned that if the Internet is managed by an international body that has expanded its control, the network will get "bogged down" in unrelated geopolitical issues.
"And I think that's one of our biggest concerns, that all of a sudden, politics that have nothing to do with ICANN, all of a sudden start trickling in to the DNS and security and stability of the Internet, and start trickling in in how the Internet is going to be run," said Mr. Lane.
Another area of concern is that the governance debate is detracting attention from other issues, such as making the Internet accessible to people in every corner of the globe. ICANN board member and vice-chairman of the U.S. Council for International Business, Tom Niles.
"WSIS, we saw it originally as an event that would look at how the Internet could be used to advance the cause of economic development in the developing world, and how the enormous benefits of the Internet could be made more widely available to consumers in the developing world," said Mr. Niles.
Mr. Niles said he thinks governments should focus on promoting policies that encourage development and promote use of the Internet in their own countries rather than arguing over who gets to control it.