Will the United Nations run the Internet?
ZDNet Australia Mon, 11 Jul 2005 4:57 PM PDT
commentary An international political spat is brewing over whether the United Nations will seize control of the heart of the Internet. U.N. bureaucrats and telecommunications ministers from many less-developed nations claim the U.S. government has undue influence over how things run online.
U.N. bureaucrats and telecommunications ministers from many less-developed nations claim the U.S. government has undue influence over how things run online. Now they want to be the ones in charge.
While the formal proposal from a U.N. working group will be released July 18, it's already clear what it will contain. A preliminary summary of governmental views claims there's a "convergence of views" supporting a new organisation to oversee crucial Internet functions, most likely under the aegis of the U.N. or the International Telecommunications Union.
At issue is who decides key questions like adding new top-level domains, assigning chunks of numeric Internet addresses, and operating the root servers that keep the Net humming. Other suggested responsibilities for this new organisation include Internet surveillance, "consumer protection," and perhaps even the power to tax domain names to pay for "universal access."
This development represents a grave political challenge to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which was birthed by the U.S. government to handle some of those topics.
A recent closed-door meeting in Geneva convened by the U.N.'s Working Group on Internet Governance offers clues about the plot to dethrone ICANN.
The "nuclear option"
proclamations served to flush out the Bush administration, which recently announced that it will not hand over control of Internet domain names and addresses to anyone else.
That high-profile snub of the U.N. could presage an international showdown. The possibility of a political flap over what has long been an abstruse Net-governance issue casts a shadow over ICANN's meeting this week in Luxembourg, and will be the topic of a July 28 symposium in Washington, D.C., called "Regime Change on the Internet."
Beyond the usual levers of diplomatic pressure and public complaining, Brazil and China could choose what amounts to the nuclear option: a fragmented root. That means a new top-level domain would not be approved by ICANN--but would be recognised and used by large portions of the rest of the world. The downside, of course, is that the nuclear option could create a Balkanised Internet where two computers find different Web sites at the same address.
"It wasn't until now" that a fragmented root was being talked about, says Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University and participant in the Internet Governance Project. "China and other countries might be pursuing responses that lead to fragmentation."
Such an outcome remains remote, but it could happen. That possibility means an obscure debate about Internet governance has suddenly become surprisingly important.