Monday, December 8, 2003

GENEVA — The United States, backed by the European Union, Japan and Canada, has turned back a bid by developing nations to place the Internet under the control of the United Nations or its member governments.

But governments, the private sector and others will be asked to establish a mechanism under U.N. auspices to study the governance of the Internet and make recommendations by 2005.

The move came in preparatory talks for the World Summit on the Information Society, opening Wednesday in Geneva. More than 200 delegates from more than 100 countries attended the talks.

The draft declaration to be issued at the end of the conference Friday also includes strong references to freedom of the press and freedom of information online, despite protests by Vietnam and China, which pushed for more restrictions.

More than 60 heads of state and government and about 12,000 delegates are expected to participate in the conference, aimed at advancing the management and worldwide use of the Internet, especially in meeting needs such as health and education in developing nations.

Major differences remain between developed countries and African countries led by Senegal over the creation of a “global digital solidarity fund.” Talks on the issue will continue today and tomorrow.

Ambassador David A. Gross, the chief of the U.S. delegation, applauded the decision on control of the Internet.

“For the first time, we see governments internationally recognizing that which we have talked about for many years — that the Internet is a responsibility not only of governments, but also primarily of the private sector, civil society and others both in the developed and the developing countries,” he said.

“So we see now a consensus around the U.S. position, which is that multistakeholders all play an important role in the process.”

The nations agreed Saturday to ask U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to set up a working group on Internet governance “in an open and inclusive process that ensures a mechanism for the full participation of governments, the private sector and civil society … to investigate and make proposals for action, as appropriate, by 2005.”

The decision was welcomed by Paul Twomey, president and chief executive officer of the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which coordinates such matters as servers and domain names.

“This has been a victory for the pro-business model,” he said. “I think this language is actually very pleasing. …”

“We think the action plan reflects the sort of argument we’ve been making for the last months. The partnership of the private sector and civil society has actually helped build the Internet, and we think that’s the right sort of partnership for going forward.”

Civil society refers to foundations and private organizations independent of government or business.

Senior diplomats familiar with the confidential talks said the compromise stemmed from the firm stance taken by the United States and compromise language offered by Canada and the Swiss chairman of the talks, Marc Furrer. The latter is the director of Switzerland’s Federal Office of Communications.

“The Swiss were good at cooling things down,” said one diplomat who participated in the talks. “At times, things got quite feisty between China, Brazil, South Africa, the U.S. and others.”

Given the dramatic growth of the medium, developing countries have been pushing for a greater role in managing and setting policy for the Internet. But the United States and its supporters have argued that government interference could retard growth of the Internet.

Many developing countries remain skeptical.

“We feel as the system gets more complex, we don’t want the whole question of Internet governance to be concentrated around the existing ICANN, which is closely linked to the U.S. Department of Commerce,” a senior Brazilian diplomat said.

Carlos Achiary, national director of Information Technology Argentina, said many governments are frustrated because the Internet is having a tremendous effect in their countries, but they have no place to submit their requests, complaints or suggestions.

“The key point is, can a government work with an organization like ICANN? How a government deals with ICANN is not the same for the United States as for Mali. There should be an entity where all governments have the same rights somewhere inside the U.N.”

But in the end, one Latin American ambassador said, “No one wanted to challenge the real power of the private sector of the rich countries.”

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