On the line: the internet's future

Ownership: World leaders meet today to discuss regulation; US fighting to regain control of global network. Censorship: State power increasingly used to limit access; Dissenters beaten outside summit site

Over the next three days a United Nations summit, in the unlikely setting of Tunisia, will attempt to thrash out the future of the internet.

More than 40 world leaders, including Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, are set to attend, and the ownership of the World Wide Web itself is at stake. What the delegates won't discuss is the creeping spectre of censorship.

What began as a military research project at the Pentagon has exploded into the most powerful network in the world and an entity upon which the global economy increasingly relies. Its future character is now in question.

At present, the closest the internet has to a governing body is an obscure American, non-profit corporation called Icann. This quasi-independent body has, for years, quietly regulated domain names and allocated addresses. But its lease is nearly up. And the world's rich and powerful will join battle for control of what they see as a gold mine.

The Bush administration wants Icann turned into a private corporation, on US soil and subject to US controls. Much of the rest of the world objects to that but the loudest opponents are countries with a history of censorship and repression, such as China and Iran. The likely balance of power in that struggle rests with the European Union, whose position is not clear.

The summit was originally conceived to address the digital divide - the gap between people who can get online and those, primarily in developing countries, who can't. Instead, it has been dominated by an argument over who controls the internet. The decisions of Icann - the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers - may seem very technical, but that does not mean they don't have direct political repercussions. The unelected Californian corporation could, in theory, block access to entire country domain names (all sites ending in .co.uk, for example, could be taken offline). But the alternative to that so far benign hegemony could, its defenders argue, be much worse. The countries leading the calls for control of the internet to be internationalised, under the aegis of the UN, are the same ones that have led the way in censoring their own citizens.

Remarkably, for a meeting called the World Summit on the Information Society, there will not be a single seminar or discussion panel held on freedom of expression. "The internet is not just a technical issue," Julian Bein, of the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, told The Independent yesterday.

"How can countries like China, Iran and Cuba be discussing internet governance?" Mr Bein asked. "It's not only China any more, this is a worldwide problem. Now every dictator or repressive regime in the world is attempting to control what their citizens can access."

The host of the summit, expected to attract 12,000 to 15,000 delegates and up to 50 world leaders, has hardly reassured those concerned that the spectre of censorship is being ignored.

Already, rights watchdogs say, both Tunisian and foreign reporters covering the summit have been harassed and beaten. Fears of a crackdown have led some civil society groups who plan to hold their own summit on the fringe of the gathering to conceal their plans.

At the weekend, a reporter with the French daily Libération, Christophe Boltanski, who had been investigating the recent beatings of human rights activists in Tunisia, was stabbed and kicked outside his hotel in Tunis. He was not seriously injured.

The Tunisia Monitoring Group has highlighted the cases of seven men now on a hunger strike in the country and estimates that about 500 more have been jailed for expressing opinions.

Robert Menard, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, has been banned from attending the summit. He said: "Banning the head of an organisation that defends free expression from attending a summit about the information society is absurd and unacceptable."|

The exponential expansion of the internet has been accompanied by staunch resistance from countries anxious to prevent their own people from getting greater access to information. In the two years since the last internet summit, held in Geneva, the rise of filtering technology - deployed by states to control what they don't want people to see - has been dramatic and insidious.

Ben Edelman, an internet researcher at Harvard University, says countries using blocking technologies have found they can cut off web content they dislike, while still obtaining the internet's commercial benefits. "Go to, say, Thailand and request a banned site on politics or pornography. Thanks to blocking technologies like IP filtering, you probably won't get the web page you asked for," he said. "Neither will you get a warning saying 'This content is blocked.' Instead, your browser is likely to say 'host not found'. In fact things are just as the censors intended: the site is working fine, but you can't see it."

In Uzbekistan authorities copy controversial sites, change their content and then repost their own version - all without the users being aware. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates filter content openly and are proud of doing so. Iran earned notoriety by becoming the first country to imprison someone for the contents of an internet page, or blog.

But China remains the benchmark in censorship. Beijing has cajoled major US players such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo into adapting their sites and services to suit the censors. A Chinese web surfer typing the word "democracy" or "freedom" or "human rights" into their server will probably receive an error message announcing: "This item contains forbidden speech."

Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch said: "There have been great claims by internet companies that it would be an unstoppable tool for free expression and the spread of democracy. But when companies like Yahoo! Microsoft and Google decide to put profits from their Chinese operations over the free exchange of information, they are helping to kill that dream."

Last night, shareholders of the US hi-tech firm Cisco Systems were to vote on a resolution calling on management to release full details of their dealings with Chinese authorities. Pressure is building on Western companies to stop ignoring, and in some cases profiting from, censorship in repressive regimes.

Access denied: a round-the-world guide to internet provision

BURMA

The military junta permits only two service providers, both under direct state control. Of the approximately 25,000 internet users in 2003, virtually all were hand-picked members of the military or government.

CHINA

China has the world's most developed internet censorship technology, thanks, ironically, to companies such as Yahoo. The pro-democracy writer Wang Yi's blog was closed two weeks ago, days after he was nominated for an international award.

FRANCE

The Law on the Digital Economy (2004) states that service providers are legally responsible for the content their customers post online. Providers must also check the legality of any links they maintain.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

Though one of the best-connected countries in the Gulf, the UAE's only service provider is state-owned. Medical and scientific sites that show naked parts of the human body, as well as publications about Buddhism, Sufism, religious sects and the US anti-war film-maker Michael Moore, are all blocked. Marriage agencies are allowed, but dating sites are banned.

GERMANY

Ogrish.com, a website displaying graphic images of violence and mutilation, has recently been blocked by its service provider after a complaint from a watchdog group called Jugendschutz (Youth Protection).

IRAN

Iranian censorship officially aims to protect the public from immoral, "non-Islamic" sites, but in reality concern centres on the political possibilities of the internet: it is currently easier to access pornographic websites than reformist ones. The authorities recently ordered all privately owned service providers to put themselves under government control, or else shut down.

TURKEY

The line between criticism in the public interest and insult in online publications is very blurred in the eyes of the courts. Cybercafé owners are obliged to monitor the activity of their users for pornography, gambling, political separatism or any challenge to the state.

Nikolai Frank

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