UN to tackle Internet governance

GENEVA – A growing number of nations are calling for UN oversight of the main computers that direct traffic on the Internet, arguing that no single country should be the ultimate authority over such a vital part of the global economy. To the surprise of the United States, even European Union negotiators have proposed “stripping the Americans of their effective control of the Internet,” as the International Herald Tribune put it.

The European decision to back the rest of the world in demanding the creation of a new international body to govern the Internet caught the U.S. negotiating team off balance and left them largely isolated at talks designed to come up with a new way of regulating the digital traffic of the 21st century.

But Ambassador David Gross, the U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy at the State Department, is holding the line, and told the international press at the UN office in Geneva during a preparatory meeting for World Summit on the Information Society that such an idea is simply "unacceptable."

Pundits and political analysts say that the stalemate over who should serve as the principal traffic cops for Internet routing and addressing could derail the summit. Thus far, Internet governance has been in U.S. hands, which also created the original system and funded much of its early development. But many Third World countries are frustrated that Western countries got into cyberspace first, gobbling up most available addresses.

One proposal under discussion would wrest control of domain names from the U.S.-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN,) and give it to an intergovernmental group, possibly under the UN. Gross insists that the best thing about the Internet is that it’s "private-sector led." He described that as a non-negotiable "matter of national policy."

ICANN controls the Internet’s master directories, which tell Web browsers and e-mail programs how to direct traffic. Policy decisions could, at a stroke, make all Web sites ending in a specific suffix essentially unreachable. Although the computers themselves –

13 in all, known as "root" servers – are in private hands, they contain government-approved lists of the 260 or so Internet suffixes, such as ".com."

In 1998, the U.S. Commerce Department selected ICANN, a private organization with international board members, to decide what goes on those lists. The Commerce Department kept veto power, but indicated it would let go once ICANN met a number of conditions. Earlier this year, the United States indicated the Commerce Department would keep that control, regardless of whether and when those conditions were met.