Leading article: Cyberspace does not belong to one nation

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The Independent Online

We have grown used to the US acting unilaterally and ignoring world opinion in recent years. But surely the internet is one place (because it isn't a "place" as such) where this kind of behaviour would be pointless, and indeed, impossible? In fact, no. Today, thousands of delegates will gather for the World Summit on The Information Society in Tunis to grapple with the tricky question of who should govern the internet. This refers to the protocols and machines that ensure your e-mail gets to its destination, and that when you head for Google's website its content is delivered from almost halfway across the world without fuss.

The US is in a corner on its own, but has the advantage of possession. The internet is, in effect, controlled by a single non-profit company based in California, called Icann (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), under contract to the US Department of Commerce. Every other country at the summit argues that Icann's functions should be brought under the control of a United Nations-controlled organisation. The US has, since the matter was first raised four years ago, steadfastly insisted that it should retain ultimate control of this essential service.

This is not a clear-cut issue in the manner of, say, climate change. Both sides have reasonable arguments. The US says that it does not see the point in ceding control of how computers are able to contact each other to a UN-based organisation, composed of countries less committed to democracy and the free flow of information. If a restrictive government chose to constrict who could register a domain, it could choke off online free speech and opposition. One thinks of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, which already restricts online activity by the opposition. Or indeed of China, which is repeatedly repressive of its citizens. Are they truly worthy inheritors of control of the wider internet?

As Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University's school of information studies, has commented, "When governments talk about imposing their public policies on the internet, unfortunately they don't typically mean, 'Let's protect human rights, individual rights, let's guarantee the freedom of the internet'. They mean, 'Damn it, somebody using the internet did something I don't like and let's find a way to stop it'."

The United Nations side, notably led by the EU, China, India and Brazil, argues that for the majority of countries to cede ultimate control of their online fate to another government is irrational. To do so is to argue that the internet has no government - except, ultimately, the US. For four days in April 2004 a dispute over payments meant that every Libyan website effectively vanished from the net. Icann eventually had to sort out the problem. But what if it was Iran, or Syria, or North Korea that had this problem? Would a US-controlled company whose tenure depends on a US government department feel as well-disposed to them (Libya had the year before recanted its nuclear ambitions), and solve their problems in equally short order?

The internet, in an astonishingly short period, has emerged as perhaps the most important network for global communication. Now a decision on its ownership is needed to help implement the advances essential to cope with further likely explosive growth in the coming decades. In truth, the US has performed well as the internet's ultimate controller, but has lacked the ability to push through newer technical improvements. But it is hard to justify unilateral control of such a vital tool any longer. The US should accept the international consensus and join with the UN.