Who Will Control the Internet?

WASHINGTON BATTLES THE WORLD

As historic documents go, the statement issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce on June 30 was low-key even by American standards of informality. No flowery language, no fountain-penned signatures, no Great Seal of the United States -- only 331 words on a single page. But the simplicity of the presentation belied the importance of the content, which was Washington's attempt to settle a crucial problem of twenty-first-century global governance: Who controls the Internet?

Any network requires some centralized control in order to function. The global phone system, for example, is administered by the world's oldest international treaty organization, the International Telecommunication Union, founded in 1865 and now a part of the UN family. The Internet is different. It is coordinated by a private-sector nonprofit organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which was set up by the United States in 1998 to take over the activities performed for 30 years, amazingly, by a single ponytailed professor in California.

The controversy over who controls the Internet has simmered in insular technology-policy circles for years and more recently has crept into formal diplomatic talks. Many governments feel that, like the phone network, the Internet should be administered under a multilateral treaty. ICANN, in their view, is an instrument of American hegemony over cyberspace: its private-sector approach favors the United States, Washington retains oversight authority, and its Governmental Advisory Committee, composed of delegates from other nations, has no real powers.

This discontent finally boiled over at the UN's World Summit on the Information Society, the first phase of which was held in Geneva in December 2003 (the second phase is set for November in Tunis). Brazil and South Africa have criticized the current arrangement, and China has called for the creation of a new international treaty organization. France wants an intergovernmental approach, but one fundamentally based on democratic values.{See Footnote 1} Cuba and Syria have taken advantage of the controversy to poke a finger in Washington's eye, and even Zimbabwe's tyrant, Robert Mugabe, has weighed in, calling the existing system of Internet governance a form of neocolonialism.

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