The U.N. thinks about tomorrow's cyberspace

The United Nations' Houlin Zhao says the organization should be given more influence over the Internet.

The International Telecommunication Union is one of the most venerable of bureaucracies. Created in 1865 to facilitate telegraph transmissions, its mandate has expanded to include radio and telephone communications.

But the ITU enjoys virtually no influence over the Internet. That remains the province of specialized organizations such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN; the Internet Engineering Task Force; the World Wide Web Consortium; and regional address registries.

The ITU, a United Nations agency, would like to change that. "The whole world is looking for a better solution for Internet governance, unwilling to maintain the current situation," Houlin Zhao, director of the ITU's Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, said last year. Zhao, a former government official in China's Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, has been in his current job since 1999.

Though Zhao is far too diplomatic to state it directly, the ITU's increasing interest in the Internet could presage a power struggle between ITU, ICANN, and perhaps even the U.S. government, which retains some oversight authority over ICANN and appears content with the current structure.

In a series of speeches over the last year, Zhao has suggested that the ITU could become involved in everything from security and spam to managing how Internet Protocol addresses are assigned. The ITU also is looking into some aspects of voice over Internet Protocol--VoIP--communications, another potential area for expansion.

"Countering spam is just one of many elements of protecting the Internet that include availability during emergencies and supporting public safety and law enforcement officials," Zhao wrote in December. Also, he wrote, the ITU "would take care of other work, such as work on Internet exchange points, Internet interconnection charging regimes, and methods to provide authenticated directories that meet national privacy regimes."

CNET recently spoke with Zhao about the ITU's increased interest in the Internet and its involvement in a series of meetings that will conclude in November with a U.N. World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia.

Q: How do you see the ITU becoming involved in Internet governance over the next few years?
Zhao: As you know, Internet governance was one of two hot topics left from the first phase of the U.N. world summit. Unfortunately we did not have a clear definition of Internet governance. Therefore the group established by Mr. Kofi Annan still has to work on these definitions.

Anything which concerns the future development of the Internet will be part of the question of Internet governance. It covers a very wide range of topics not just related to technology development, service development, but also policy matters, sovereignty, security, privacy, almost anything.

I do not consider ICANN an enemy.
According to ITU's definition of "telecommunications," telecommunications covers almost anything. Therefore according to our own lawyers, the Internet is one of these telecommunications mediums. Others argue that "telecommunications" is too wide and it does not include the Internet.

What do you think? Should the ITU be involved in Internet governance?
Zhao: Yes, for sure. ITU should be part of Internet governance. But ITU cannot cover everything.

Does that mean an inevitable conflict with ICANN?
Zhao: I don't think so. Whether we have a conflict with ICANN depends on (many things).

I do not consider ICANN an enemy. We are founding members of ICANN's Protocol Supporting Organization. I myself signed that paper on behalf of the ITU. We tried to support ICANN as far as we

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