TOPICS : US fights to remain ultimate webmaster

Haider Rizvi

International efforts to break down the digital barriers facing the world’s poor will backfire if governments fail to work out their differences on the issue of internet governance, diplomatic observers say. Many heads of state and technical experts are due to attend the UN Summit for the Information Society in Tunis next week where they will try to negotiate the legal and technical future of the internet. But with the US unwilling to embrace any changes in the network it helped create in the 1960s, and other nations seeking to alter the current system, indications are that negotiators could pack up without any agreement. The most contentious issue to be discussed is Washington’s role in overseeing the internet’s address structure known as “the domain name system”, which enables millions of computer users to communicate with each other. Currently, the system is managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California-based NGO.

Despite differences, both the developing countries’ bloc led by China, India, Brazil and others, and the European Union are stressing that the internet should be governed internationally with multiple stakeholders. While many developing countries want internet governance to be controlled by an international body such as the UN, the Europeans have proposed what they call a “cooperation model” to deal with ICANN. The model points to a “forum” that would allow governments, interested organisations, and industry to discuss internet issues. But Washington continues to oppose such suggestions, arguing that internet security and stability are best maintained through the current systems of technical controls overseen by ICANN.

The plan of action adopted at the conclusion of the first UN summit on the information society held in Geneva in 2003 laid out clear targets for increasing information and communication technologies access and internet connections for rural areas, hospitals, libraries and universities in the developing world. The plan also set targets for online access for local governments, for the availability of content in all languages and for developing primary and secondary school curricula. Developing countries argue that meeting such goals requires changes in internet governance, but the US says the current system is producing positive results.

“Internet governance should not be the prerogative of one group of countries or stockholders,”

Maria Luiza Viotti, a Brazilian diplomat, said recently. But US officials countered this position on the ground that governments’ involvement in internet governance would cause further erosion of the freedom of expression and independent opinion. Those closely watching the negotiating process say it is too early to suggest that the summit will prove to be a fiasco, yet there is a possibility that it may conclude without any meaningful agreement signed. Some fear that China, Russia, Brazil and other nations may be compelled to launch their own versions of the internet.