Courtesy Reuters

Who Will Control the Internet?

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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

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