Net power struggle nears climax
Date: Thursday, October 13 2005
Net power struggle nears climax
By Alfred Hermida
Technology editor, BBC News website
The US has got an image problem when it comes to the internet.
It is seen as arrogant and determined to remain the sheriff of the world wide web, regardless of whatever the rest of the world may think.
It has even lost the support of the European Union. It stands alone as the divisive battle over who runs the internet heads for a showdown at a key UN summit in Tunisia next month.
The stakes are high, with the European Commissioner responsible for the net, Viviane Reding, warning of a potential web meltdown.
"The US is absolutely isolated and that is dangerous," she said during a briefing with journalists in London.
"Imagine the Brazilians or the Chinese doing their own internet. That would be the end of the story.
"I am very much afraid of a fragmented internet if there is no agreement."
Brokering the peace
The UN has been wrestling over who should run the internet for a number of years. It was one of the issues which divided nations at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva two years ago.
The second phase of the UN conference is due to take place in Tunisia from the 16 to 18 November.
There is a problem as many parts of the world don't like the fact that one country is linked to the organism that technically rules the internet
Viviane Reding, European Commissioner
Currently a California-based group called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) is the nearest thing to a ruling body. The private company was set up by the US Department of Commerce to oversee the domain name and addressing systems, such as country domain suffixes. It manages how net browsers and e-mail programs direct traffic.
Icann was to gain its independence from the Department of Commerce by September 2006. But in July the US said it would "maintain its historic role in authorising changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file".
America's determination to remain the ultimate purveyor of the internet has angered other countries which believe it is time to come up with a new way of regulating the digital traffic of the 21st century.
In the face of opposition from countries such as China, Iran and Brazil, and several African nations, the US is now isolated ahead of November's UN summit.
The row threatens to overshadow talks on other issues such as bringing more people online and tackling spam e-mail.
America's traditional ally, Europe, has been left trying to find a way of brokering the peace.
"There is a problem as many parts of the world don't like the fact that one country is linked to the organism that technically rules the internet," said Commissioner Reding. "Many countries would like a multilateral approach."
On the table are European proposals for some kind of international forum to discuss principles for running the internet. The EU does not intend to scrap Icann. It would continue in its current technical role.
Instead Europe is suggesting a way of allowing countries to express their position on internet issues, though the details on how this would happen are vague.
"We have no intention to regulate the internet," said Commissioner Reding, reassuring the US that the EU was not proposing setting up a new global body.
Rather she talked of a "model of cooperation", of an international forum to discuss the internet.
Her carefully chosen form of words may help assuage a Bush administration which is vehemently opposed to any kind of international body to govern the internet.
"I am sure we will find a solution in interests of the internet," said Mrs Reding. "We think we could have an agreement on what's on the table."
[Proofreader's note: this article was edited for spelling and typos on October 15, 2005]