U.N. Members Look to Loosen U.S. Hold on Web

Other nations are working together to change the way the Internet is governed, but the U.S. so far is giving no ground.

The United Nations summit drew to a close on Friday with national governments locked in an unresolved dispute over future governance of the Internet.

A number of governments called for the United States to relinquish its unilateral control over Internet governance, in favor of a new body under the oversight of the international community or the United Nations. The U.S. opposes any such change.

U.S. Ambassador David Gross made the countrys position clear last month while speaking before the U.S. Congressional Internet Caucus on the World Summit on the Information Society and Internet Governance. "The United Nations will not be in charge of the Internet. Period," Gross said.

This weeks meeting, Prepcon-3 in Geneva, was designed to formulate the final document that will be put forward by the international community at the WSIS in November. The inconclusive end to the meeting leaves the WSIS without a finished document. An unscheduled three-day meeting is to be called, possibly just before the WSIS begins, in another attempt to resolve the sticking points.

At stake is whether the U.S. Department of Commerce will continue to hold unilateral authority over Internet governance. The U.S. government was left virtually isolated on the issue after the EU (European Union) on Wednesday submitted a proposal calling for changes.

"In reviewing the adequacy of existing institutional arrangements for Internet Governance and policy debate we agree that adjustments need to be made," stated the UK delegation, on behalf of the EU.

It was the first time the EU has deviated from its backing for the U.S. position of supporting the status quo. The proposal evidently took the U.S. representative unaware, according to attendees. "They responded immediately afterward with a hand-scrawled intervention. I think he was writing it while the EU proposal was being read out," said Sarah Parkes, a spokeswoman for the ITU (International Telecommunication Union), the U.N.s telecommunications body and the lead organizing agency behind the summit.

/zimages/3/28571.gifTo combat crime and terrorism, the EU and member states have proposed that all phone and Internet traffic be logged and stored. Click here to read more.

In response to the EUs proposal, the U.S. statement read: "The U.S. is committed to take no action that affects the security and stability of the Domain Name System."

The WSIS is designed to address a large number of fundamental Internet issues, allowing governments to coordinate on distribution of costs, mechanisms for international dispute resolution, ensuring stability and countering cybercrime, controlling spam, consumer rights and freedom of expression. "Its not just a platform for future IT development, but a foundation for future national legislation as well," Parkes said. "They need to base their actions on cybercrime, spam and other issues on the legitimacy provided by such a document."

But the real debate has come down to a handful of questions regarding control of the Internet: management of the DNS root zone, technical oversight of Internet infrastructure and the involvement of governments. The DNS root zone is the top level of the Internets DNS hierarchy, including the 13 root nameservers that handle requests for top-level domain addresses.

Currently ICANN (the International Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers), a private non-profit company based in California, oversees IP address space allocation, domain name system management and other technical aspects. It is under the authority of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Among ICANNs many critics is the U.N.s WGIG (Working Group on Internet Governance), which last month published proposals for how Internet governance could be reformed. The proposal formed the basis for the discussions at Prepcon-3.

WGIG put forward four options for governance reform:

  • Creating a new U.N.-based Global Internet Council overseen by governments and other stakeholders, to take over from ICANN;
  • Leaving ICANN in charge but strengthening its Governmental Advisory Committee;
  • Leaving ICANN in a narrow technical role but setting up an International Internet Council to take over oversight from the U.S.; and
  • Creating three new bodies for technical management, debate by governments, businesses and the public, and Internet-related public policy.

A group of governments called the "Likeminded Group", including Brazil, Iran, Cuba, China and others, joined forces to demand an end to U.S. control, but the EU was not expected to sympathize. Following its Wednesday proposal, the EU is now in discussions with the Likeminded Group on a joint proposal for an alternative governance system.

/zimages/3/28571.gifCompanies are resisting Congressional efforts to mandate more Internet security. Click here to read more.

The U.S. said the EUs proposal would take Internet governance out of the private sector and put it in the hands of governments.

On Friday Prepcon-3 participants formally announced they did not expect to complete the WSIS document by the end of the meeting. They planned to complete the less controversial aspects of the document by the end of the day on Friday, however. Debate at the new pre-WSIS meeting will be limited to the more controversial points.

"The U.S. has to make some move towards everybody else for us to get a document that would be satisfactory to the other delegations," said the ITUs Parkes. "There is every reason to think they might do that. The root zone system may be non-negotiable, but there may be some other points on which they can compromise."

The WSIS will take place in Tunis, Tunisia, Nov. 16-18.

/zimages/3/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis of technologys impact on government and politics.