US wins right to keep internet control after warning of censorship risks

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The US government has won its battle to retain control of the internet, under a compromise worked out ahead of this week's United Nations summit on the information society, which leaves the current addressing and traffic direction system intact.

Under the deal, an international forum, under UN auspices, will be set up to examine Net issues. But day-to-day management of the internet will remain with the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), a part-private, part-public body that reports to the department of commerce in Washington.

The controversy, pitting the US against a group of countries which want the UN to have supervision of the internet, had threatened to derail the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) that opened in Tunis yesterday. The conference, attended by 170 countries, will now be free to concentrate on its original goal of fostering a genuinely world-wide information society, under which the internet would be available to all by 2015.

Currently only 14 per cent of the global population has internet access, compared with 62 per cent in the US.

"The hurdle is more political than financial; the cost of connectivity, computers and mobile phones can be brought down," Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, said in his opening address.

Pointing to the interest of authoritarian countries like China, Iran and Saudi Arabia in switching to a UN-based system of internet management, US officials had warned that such change would increase the risk of censorship and slow technological improvement.

"We did not change anything on the role of the US government," David Gross, the chief American negotiator, said after agreement was reached. The new intergovernmental forum would have "no oversight authority", he assured, and would create "no problems" for the private sector. The forum will handle cross-border problems like web viruses, cybercrime and spam.

Until recently Icann has operated at arm's length from the US government, on a no-profit basis and with at least four foreign directors on its board. However, fears of a more heavy-handed approach by Washington grew when Christian groups complained to the commerce department about proposals to create a new .xxx domain for pornographic material. The department then wrote to Icann, urging it to consider the objections. In fact the .xxx scheme had already been quietly dropped.

Further change for Icann could be on the way when its statute expires in 2006. The US government wants to privatise it entirely.