Negotiators water down text on internet governance

Negotiators from more than 100 countries have agreed to leave the United States in charge of the Internet's addressing system, averting a US-EU showdown at this week's UN technology summit.

US officials said early today that instead of transferring management of the system to an international body such as the United Nations, an international forum would be created to address concerns. The forum, however, would have no binding authority.

US Assistant Secretary of Commerce Michael Gallagher said the deal means the United States will leave day-to-day management to the private sector, through a quasi-independent organisation called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or Icann.

"The Internet lives to innovate for another day," he said.

Negotiators have met since Sunday to reach a deal ahead of the UN World Summit on the Information Society, which starts today. World leaders are expected to ratify a declaration incorporating the deal during the summit, which ends on Friday.

The summit was originally conceived to address the digital divide - the gap between information haves and have-nots - by raising both consciousness and funds for projects.

Instead, it has centred largely on internet governance: oversight of the main computers that control traffic on the Internet by acting as its master directories so web browsers and email programs can find other computers.

That job is handled by Icann, which answers to the US government.

The EU mediated between the United States and a group of countries including China and Iran that have sought to replace Icann with a multi-country group under UN auspices.

But Washington declared in June that it would retain oversight indefinitely, despite what many countries thought was a long-standing policy to one day completely turn the function over to Icann.

In September, the EU insisted that a new combination of governments and the private sector share responsibility of policing the internet.

The compromise was the creation of a forum with representatives from government, civil society and the private sector, said David Gross, the US State Department's top official on internet policy.

Besides taking up addressing issues, the forum could address spam, cybercrime and any other issue its participants want to bring up, Gross said. The first meeting will likely be held in Athens, Greece, early next year, he said.

Gross said the forum would not have oversight authority nor would it do "anything that will create any problems for the private sector".

James Love, a US-based consumer advocate who follows international policies affecting technology, said the forum should be influential, even if it lacks authority. In an online posting, Love said businesses have attempted similar forums in the past, but none with the legitimacy of a UN-sanctioned group.

Meanwhile, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation yesterday expressed concern about what it called the "rural digital divide".

"The rural digital divide is isolating almost 1 billion of the poorest people who are unable to participate in the global information society," the agency said.