Battle for the web

Who do you think is in charge of the internet? America, of course. But now the UN wants to muscle in. A very bad idea, says Rupert Cornwell

But that obscurity is about to end. Since 1998 Icann has been the nearest thing that exists to a governing body for the internet, regulating domains and protocol numbers, and allocating addresses (including this newspaper's www.independent.co.uk). The debate over its future now pits the US against most of the rest of the world, and the increasingly bitter argument is set to come to a head at a United Nations conference in Tunis next week.

The gathering - the World Summit on the Information Society - comes at an especially critical moment. Originally, the focus was to be on extending affordable internet access to all. But Icann's existing statute is just a few months from expiry. Suddenly, the very control of the internet is at stake.

The Bush administration has made it clear that it plans to turn Icann into a private corporation, but one remaining on US soil and subject to US law. Many other countries, however, most of them in the developing and newly industrialised world - but as of last month the European Union as well - think otherwise.

Uneasy that the world's lone superpower effectively has its hands on the levers of an entity on which the entire global economy relies, they want the governance of the internet to be transferred to a body under the aegis of the UN, in which everyone would have a say.

Beyond argument, the internet has been a colossal boon for humanity, an instantaneous, frontier-eradicating network that the world now takes for granted. It has revolutionised communications. It has made possible access to information and thus the spread of knowledge on a scale previously unimaginable. It has undermined tyrannies. Undeniably, it has brought big problems, too: among them an erosion of individual privacy, cybercrime and an explosion of pornography. But the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, and most important of all, the internet is here to stay. The question is, how will it be run, and by whom?

America has no doubts on that score. The internet, after all, originated on US soil as a Pentagon research project dating back to the 1960s, before it passed into civilian hands and ultimately to Icann. The latter has deftly supervised the breathtaking expansion of the internet over the past decade.

At least until very recently, the hand - if any - of its host government in Icann's workings has been indetectable. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," is the mantra in Washington, and it is hard to disagree.

A UN solution, moreover, contains further dangers, American backers of the status quo argue. The internet has been a tool for free expression and democracy the world over. Ominously, among the countries pressing most strongly for a more internationalised and governmentalised structure are such beacons of liberty as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, all of them concerned to limit the flow of information to their restless citizens.

Then there is the instinctive dislike of America's Republican establishment for the UN and all its works. On the arch-conservative op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal this week, Norm Coleman, the Republican senator for Minnesota, wrote of a possible "digital Munich" in Tunis. "The internet faces a grave threat," warned Coleman, who has built his political career in Washington on UN-bashing. "We must defend it ... we cannot allow the UN to control the internet." He went on to castigate the "shameful" volte-face of the EU at the recent planning meeting for the Tunis summit, as it backed a plan drawn up by Brazil, China and others, leaving the US all but isolated. It would be "wantonly irresponsible" to allow any expansion of the activities of the "abysmally managed and sometimes corrupt" UN, he thundered.

In good measure, of course, America has only itself to blame for its internet predicament. The Bush administration has made unilateralism its watchword, seemingly going out of its way to snub most of the rest of the world on issues from arms control to Iraq and global warming. Theoretically, Washington could do the same with the internet, using Icann to punish, say, France for some act of insubordination by expunging the .fr domain name.

So crude an act of political retaliation is naturally unimaginable. But Third World countries in particular have specific grievances. Some are merely irritating: why is it, they argue, that a US-based firm can buy a domain name like www.southafrica.com, which ought to belong automatically to the South African government as the logical first port of call for people seeking information about that country? Others' complaints are more fundamental. Icann does have non-American directors, as well as four offices outside the US. But critics say that other countries are ultimately denied a real say in its operations.

After all, a mere non-profit group in southern California has little power to deal with the most contentious internet issues: child pornography, spam, cross-border gambling, financial scams and the like. But Icann's defenders retort that these are matters for individual governments to resolve within their own borders, not for an overarching world authority - which, in any case, does not exist.

Alas, however, the US undermined its own case by getting involved in the proposed creation of a new .xxx domain for pornographic sites. Outraged foes of the plan, led by the influential conservative pro-family lobby here, bombarded the Department of Commerce with protests, and the department sent a letter to Icann, urging that the idea be reconsidered. Probably it was going nowhere in any case; even pornography groups objected to it. But the damage was done. The episode was seeming proof of what critics have long maintained, that when push came to shove, America dictated how the internet is managed.

But the European Union has blundered, too, with its endorsement in September of more governmental control. Its proposal, for an international umbrella organisation that would draw up guidelines for domains and routing numbers, was intended as a compromise. Instead, it played into the hands of China, Iran, and others. Ironically, Britain, normally America's staunchest ally, took no part in the decision. Currently the chairman of the EU, it was bound to strict neutrality in the discussions.

Last week, Kofi Annan stepped into the row in person, denying that the Tunis gathering was a dark plot by the world body to gain control. The aim, the UN Secretary- General declared in an article in the Washington Post, was merely to "ensure the internet's global reach". However, the latter had now become so important to every country that "it would be naive to expect governments not to take an interest". His op-ed piece in the Washington Post was intended as an olive branch; instead, it merely fanned the fears of Coleman and America's other UN-phobes.

The worst-case scenario is that the Information Society Summit ends in disagreement, with the US alone against the rest. This would create the prospect of separate countries or regions going their own ways, setting up parallel systems and generating only fragmentation, duplication and chaos.

Surely common sense will prevent such an outcome. But it is equally obvious that things cannot go on as they are. Some decision on Icann's own future must be taken as soon as next year. Either some fig-leaf of international supervision must be devised, or the entire problem will have to be kicked into the long grass - perhaps by the creation of some new bureaucratic forum that would spend years examining the issue while today's arrangements quietly continued. Once upon a time, "benign neglect" was a lousy way for the US to run the dollar. But for the internet that approach has worked just fine.

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