U.N. proposes changes to Net's operation

Official takes aim at "self-serving justifications" for permitting the U.S. to preserve its unique influence and authority online.

ATHENS, Greece--A top United Nations official on Monday called for changes in the way the Internet is operated, taking aim at "self-serving justifications" for permitting the United States to preserve its unique influence and authority online.

Speaking during opening ceremonies at a four-day U.N. summit here, Yoshio Utsumi criticized the current rules for overseeing domain names and Internet addresses, stressing that poorer nations are dissatisfied and are hoping that this week's meeting will erode U.S. influence.

"Many of them are tired of hearing 'You just don't understand,'" said Utsumi, a lawyer and former government official who is the secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, a U.N. agency. "Many do understand."

He added: "No matter what technical experts argue is the best system, no matter what self-serving justifications are made that this is the only possible way to do things, there are no systems or technologies that can eternally claim they are the best."

Human rights groups, however, have warned that many of the nations most critical of the current arrangement--Tunisia, Cuba, Iran, China--rank among the world's most repressive. The worry: If those governments have their way, the current, virtually limitless amount of free expression on the Internet may come to an end.

The Paris-based advocacy group Reporters Without Borders last week called those reform proposals alarming and asked: "Do we really want the countries that censor the Internet and jail cyberdissidents to be in charge of the online flow of information?" (The group also noted that the United Nations Commission on Human Rights counted, as members, nations such as Libya and Sudan, no champions of human rights themselves.)

Similarly, Amnesty International has sent a delegation here to the Internet Governance Forum to emphasize the need for protecting free speech. "The Internet Governance Forum needs to know that the online community is bothered about free expression online and willing to stand up for it," said Steve Ballinger, part of Amnesty's delegation.

Since 1998, domain names and Internet addresses have been overseen by the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Commerce. The U.S. government has occasionally used that unique relationship to its advantage, for instance when the Bush administration objected to a .xxx adult domain--an objection that ended with ICANN abruptly reversing itself and rejecting the domain suffix.

Recent changes (click here for PDF) to the Commerce Department-ICANN relationship haven't been enough to quiet anti-U.S. rumblings at the Athens summit.

The prime minister of Greece, Konstantínos Karamanlís, took a swipe at the U.S. during his opening speech, saying attendees should work to "enhance democracy in the Internet itself." Nitin Desai, an adviser for U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, called this week's event a "harbinger of a new type of multilateralism."

The only speaker on Monday who dwelled on free expression for more than a moment was Viviane Reding, the European Commission's Commissioner for Information Society and Media.

"Freedom, ladies and gentlemen, is sometimes seen as a threat to those who do not value human rights or want to impose their vision of the world or their religious belief" on others, Reding said. She urged the attendees to preserve the Internet as an "open and censorship-free zone."

The official purpose of the Internet Governance Forum, which was created at a similar U.N. event last year in Tunisia and is scheduled to convene annually for five years, is to discuss everything from domain names to spam and security. But many critics of the United States hope that the forum will contain the seeds to an organization to supplant ICANN, perhaps organized under the auspices of the United Nations.

Even though the U.S. has the most sophisticated Internet infrastructure, last year's meeting was held in Tunisia and this year's in Greece. Not one meeting is scheduled to be held in North America, though Brazil, India, and Egypt have announced their plans to host future ones. In addition, no U.S. government representative spoke during opening ceremonies.

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