Internet battle ends in stalemate

Tunis, November 16:

An expected fight over the governance of the internet looked to have been averted yesterday as a tentative deal was struck which would allow the US government to retain overall control of the medium for the foreseeable future.

As delegates arrived for today’s opening of the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in the Tunisian capital, bureaucrats who had been locked in three days of pre-summit meetings reckoned they had a compromise. The US government will retain overall control of the technology which powers the internet — its domain name system, root servers and the oversight of the California-based, not-for-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) which looks after it all — for the foreseeable future.

An Internet Governance Forum (IGF) will be created to discuss and decide upon the over-reaching issues of the internet, but, crucially, will not have any oversight powers. Governments have also agreed to work within existing organisations and infrastructures to gradually transform the way the internet is run.

It is a far cry from the inter-governmental oversight body that was proposed by the European Union (EU) in September. That proposal, which shocked the US as much as it pleased Brazil, China and Iran, pushed the previously unnoticed issue of internet governance on to the world stage and turned the topic into the main focus of the WSIS.

Just as surprising as the EU’s proposal, however, has been its failure to push that model in Tunis this week. In fiery opening statements, China and the US laid down their same, strong positions, but when it came to the EU to speak, delegation head David Hendon said only that it had “looked carefully at all positions, including our own” and deferred to the chair of the committee over which direction the meeting would take.

Masood Khan from Pakistan wasted no time in telling delegates that the world was expecting a decision and he would no longer accept grandstanding. Stating that there would be no voting, only a process of consensus, Khan told delegates to find common ground and produce a list of points where they agreed. When they failed to do so after several hours of discussion, he suspended the meeting.

With such a provocative approach, the hopes that a radical solution would emerge were shot down by a series of interventions from the US and Australia.

Russian attempts to push the forum into the hands of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) were neatly sidestepped. By the end, what was left was an acceptance of the status quo with promises that they would be open to reform.

The finally wording remains to be decided but reform will have to take place in the governmental advisory committee of Icann, which plays only an advisory role.

Internet watchers were puzzled by the EU’s backtracking. Recent speculation has centred on a letter from US national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to the EU in the run-up to the summit. Its contents have not been made public but Rice is said to have urged the EU to reconsider its approach.

Hendon confirmed the letter’s existence but denied it had had any impact on the organisation’s position. A large number of leading IT companies, including Microsoft and Google, publicly stated their support for the existing model.