The Internet Really Is World-Wide

Opinion: The governance of the Internet is being decided in Tunis at the World Summit on the Information Society. Aside from the impact on the virtual world, the decisions could take their toll on travel budgets for Internet workers.

TUNIS—The WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society) here is the culmination of a three-year effort to wrestle over the future governance mechanisms of the Internet. The scope of the task is evident by the diversity of the crowd: some 26,000 diplomats, real Internet workers and various "hangers on" are arriving in Tunisia this week. The last time so many descended so suddenly here might have been 138 BCE, when Carthage was destroyed by its rival Rome.

My flight from Paris on Tuesday was filled with a variety of views on the upcoming meeting. These ranged from a free-press advocate, who complained about the host Tunisian governments lack of press freedom; a Brazilian cultural minister who used to be a champion bossa nova dancer; and the president of a small African Republic.

When we arrived at the airport, our plane pulled up to a VIP receiving stand where the VIPs got out. The plane then taxied over to the terminal where all of the rest of us disembarked.

The first question you are tempted to ask yourself is: Who are all these people? And secondly, who is paying their way to be here?

If the United Nations takes control of the Internet, as it would very much like to do, this meeting will be representative of the brave new world of technology meetings: multi-hued, multi-cultural—and largely on the dole.

For example, the International Telecommunications Union, a Geneva-based UN organization that has for years fancied itself as the most likely UN-related governance mechanism, has expended quite heavily from its annual travel budget to bring folks here. The ITU is not alone.

The underlying message that future travel arrangements to a new governance mechanism held in interesting places—for many who cannot afford it—is one of the well understood but not debated aspects of the future governance plan.

The future of any new UN governance mechanism will include massive transfer payments to those who "play ball."

But the real question is whether such a new government mechanism will produce even a single new idea or mechanism that will advance connecting villages who have no Internet access.

WSIS has declared, and all the governments have agreed, that all such villages will be connected by 2015, but whether the WSIS process will help this worthy goal is unclear.

Wednesday, the first day of the Summit, saw the UN Secretary General and 50 other presidents or prime ministers visit the podium, and if the presidents werent available, the foreign ministers, whose positions would be viewed as equivalent to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

But behind the scenes the final text was written after 37 hours of tortured negotiations by the staff of the country delegations, where if you snoozed for even a second, your pet provision would be eliminated, or worse, someone elses pet provision that hurt your interest would be added.

Statist-leaning governments (such as Cuba, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Brazil) pushed for language to aggrandize the rights of national sovereigns.

These "rights" are intended to balkanize the Internet, allow development of new structures built on political, not technological, boundaries, and generally muck up the technological focus of Internet management.

Another key statist phrase is to "equalize" the distribution of resources.

You dont have to be the smartest North American around to realize they mean equalizing the world to the United States.

It gives new meaning to the old phrase "no mans money is safe while the [world] legislature is in session."

The U.S. delegation has been asked to manage a problem: It must protect a U.S.-inspired Internet based on democratic principles in a world where other countries resent the control the U.S. government still has over the infrastructure.

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The current U.S. isolation diplomatically due to the Iraq war and Kyoto Accord rejection doesnt make this an easy task.

My work here is in representing the "IP number community."

The IP number that allows your e-mail to arrive at your computer was likely issued by an RIR (regional Internet registry).

In the US, this is done by the ARIN (American Registry for Internet Numbers), a small but important not-for-profit corporation located in Chantilly, Va., off the runway at Dulles Airport.

The RIRs distribute scarce IP numbers to the ISP community.

I am working with my colleagues from around the world, including the newest RIR, AfriNIC, which serves Africa; APNIC, serving the Asia Pacific region; RIPE, serving Europe, the Middle East and Russia; and LACNIC , serving Mexico and all points South to Tierra del Fuego.

One of our RIR group, LACNIC CEO Raul Echeberria, was part of the official Uruguay delegation, and part of the Working Group that helped write the declaration for the summit.

Attorney Stephen Ryan is a partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP, and is registered to lobby for a number of companies in the high-tech industry. He is the General Counsel for several technology businesses including ARIN (American Registry of Internet Numbers) and the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative, which brings satellite television, broadband and other services to rural America.

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