Internet showdown in Tunis

newsmaker U.S. ambassador David Gross heads to a U.N. conference to make a case to leave U.S. control over the Internet alone. Will the world listen?

newsmaker The United Nations' World Summit on the Information Society began with a high-minded purpose: to bridge the technological gap between richer and poorer nations. But now the , which begins Nov. 16 in Tunisia, has transformed into a week-long debate about who should control key portions of the Internet. Delegates from nations like in what they want: less control by the U.S. government. Instead, they've suggested creation of some sort of cyberbureaucracy---perhaps under the U.N. International Telecommunication Union.

Those arguments have met with a cold shoulder in Washington. The Bush administration said in no uncertain terms in June that it intended to

CNET's chief political correspondent, Declan McCullagh, will be reporting direct from the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia beginning next week.

If the U.N. prevails in this international political spat, business groups worry that domain name fees would go up and regulations would increase. If no agreement is reached, there's always the possibility of a bifurcated Internet divided by geographical region.

CNET recently spoke with Ambassador of Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs David Gross, who's leading the U.S. delegation to Tunisia. Gross previously was a telecommunications lawyer and a lobbyist for AirTouch Communications (now part of Vodafone).

Q: What are the stakes at the WSIS summit?
The stakes are really very high. The focus of the summit originally--and we believe still--is on the use of technology to take advantage of the historic opportunity to better everyone around the world, economically, socially and politically. Those are very high stakes.

How much of the current opposition over this issue is a result of global tensions regarding the U.S. as the world's lone superpower and involvement in Iraq?
This is an issue that I think should be and will be addressed on its merits. The Internet has been an extraordinary development in the history of the world. There are about a billion people connected to the Internet in a remarkably short period of time.

The Internet is technically, constantly changing...We're not interested in trying to lock in the current system as the right system.

The system has worked extraordinarily well and arguably better than any other technology that's ever been rolled out. We seek to ensure that that continued advancement goes forward. I know by the way that the president just this afternoon (Thursday) is awarding the Medal of Freedom to a host of extraordinary Americans. Two of those Americans include Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, who are often referred to as the fathers of the Internet.

Does the U.S. government have too much control of Internet governance?
If you look at it the way most people would, it's a very bottom-up approach. There are a lot of players--civil society and the private sector--that play an important role. Certainly, the U.S. government has played an extraordinarily important role in the past. It was because of the U.S. government and the research funded by it that the Internet exists in the first place.

We think it's working very well. We don't think there are any pressing problems associated with it.

At the preliminary meeting in New York last year, I found that discussions were all over the map, including spam, viruses and computer security. Is there a lack of focus here?
Issues like spam and cybercrime and viruses are extraordinarily important. We've encouraged WSIS and other forums to work cooperatively in solving those issues. So we seek to have a very robust and inclusive discussion about these issues and others as well.

If critics of the U.S. join forces at WSIS and oppose the U.S., are there any red lines for the U.S that the administration would find intolerable?
We've been very clear in what we think the summit should be accomplishing and should be focusing on. We continue to work with governments around the world and with civil society and with the private sector to secure an outcome

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