Monday, October 10, 2005

A growing bloc of rich and poor nations wants to strip the U.S. government of its role managing the Internet’s most basic infrastructure and hand it over to a still-undefined international coalition.

The Bush administration opposes such a move, saying a bureaucratic morass would undermine the stability and reliability of the Internet.

“What we are not interested in … is the establishment of a new international institution to regulate the Internet,” said David Gross, head of the U.S. delegation to the World Summit on the Information Society, U.N.-brokered meetings to deal with issues related to cybercrime, economic development and Internet management.

Under such a proposal, the U.S. would have to agree to give up control, an unlikely result.

The dispute threatens progress on issues such as international cooperation on reducing junk e-mail and expanding the Internet to poor countries.

Countries are fighting over control of the Internet’s Domain Name Systems. DNS translates domain names, such as, into the unique numerical addresses read by computers. Allocation and coordination of the names and numbers from a central authority is crucial to linking the multiple, scattered networks that constitute the Internet.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a nonprofit in Marina del Rey, Calif., that has a memorandum of understanding with the Commerce Department to oversee the naming system and allocate top-level domains such as “.com,” “.ca” for Canada and the new “.mobi” for mobile phones. ICANN has no say over Internet content.

Countries outside the U.S., often with different objectives, chafe at the central U.S. role.

Argentina, for example, sees the Internet as a global resource and thinks all nations, through a multilateral institution, should have a role in setting policies. A few authoritarian regimes, such as Cuba and Iran, are more interested in limiting access to information.

The movement for greater international involvement gathered steam at the end of last month when the European Union made a call to end the Commerce Department role.

“The [European Union] had toed the same line as the U.S. But they came around to more international approach. That was surprising,” said Sarah Parkes, spokeswoman for the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a body of the United Nations that is organizing the summit.

The European proposal, formally introduced to other nations last month in Geneva, calls for “international government involvement” in name-, number- and address-related matters — procedures such as creation of new top-level domains, allocation of the corresponding numbers and establishment of an international panel to settle disputes.

Other nations coalesced around the European position as a workable compromise — something between the U.S. demand to maintain the status quo and a more authoritarian pitch to set up a multinational body that would regulate a technology now largely outside government control.

“What is the difference is that in Geneva, all countries said the EU position is a workable compromise. That left the United States in Geneva a little isolated,” said Martin Selmayr, EU spokesman for information society and media.

Mr. Selmayr said Europe is not trying to increase the role of government, but rather to replace the role of a single government with “an international solution.”

Europe does not want an international body created to govern the Internet, he added.

The U.S. is skeptical of that assertion.

Pakistan’s delegate to the ITU said the Internet needs an “Inter-Governmental Council” to set policies and oversee the delegation of names, numbers and addresses.

“To a degree here, what we’ve got is a clash of ideas, a 20th-century perspective on coordination with a 21st-century technology,” said Paul Twomey, ICANN’s president and chief executive.

Representatives of the ITU’s 189 members are scheduled to meet in the days preceding the Nov. 16-18 summit in Tunis, Tunisia, to further hash out the competing proposals.

Michael D. Gallagher, U.S. assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, said the EU offer “is not the solution” and dismissed other models introduced last month simply as ways to create bureaucratic interference in a medium that opens up economic and political opportunity.

“We embrace these concepts of the private sector, the marketplace and freedom of expression. So the contrast is stark and the choice is clear,” he said.

Despite international pressure, U.S. resistance to shifting oversight responsibility away from the Commerce Department likely would quash proposals of the European Union and others.

“The summit is consensus-based. When there is a lack of consensus, the status quo must continue,” Mr. Gallagher said.

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