U.N. summit revives concerns about Net control

Diplomats head to Athens for a summit that will resume a long-simmering debate about the United States' role on the Internet.

A long-simmering dispute over whether the U.S. government has too much control over the Internet's underpinnings will heat up again next week at a United Nations summit in Greece.

Starting this weekend, about 1,200 diplomats and technology ministers will gather at a hotel in the outskirts of Athens to resume a debate that has often pitted the Bush administration and a handful of its Western allies against Brazil, India, China and African countries.

Officially, the inaugural meeting of the United Nations' Internet Governance Forum is designed to explore topics like free speech, security, spam and multilingualism.

But the diplomatic subtext is more pointed: Does the U.S. government have too much influence over how Internet addresses are allocated and domain names are assigned? Are the changes in the relationship with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, announced by the U.S. Commerce Department a few weeks ago, sufficient to allay international concerns? (Click here for PDF.)

The European Commission thinks they are. "I welcome the U.S. government's declared intention to grant more autonomy to ICANN," Viviane Reding, the EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media, said on Oct. 2. "With our advice, we will contribute to this transition to ensure that it takes place transparently, reflecting the interests of industry and civil society alike."

So does the venerable Internet Society, which called it a "constructive step in the direction of private sector management" of the domain name system. (ICANN operates some Internet address and domain name functions under an agreement with the U.S. government.)

But a subsequent analysis by the Internet Governance Project, a group of largely U.S. academics, concludes that not much has changed. The analysis says: "The new agreement does not substantially reduce the level of U.S. government control."

That's likely to draw the ire of third-world nations, which spent much of their alloted time at an previous summit in Tunisia last year attacking what they described as unfair dominance of the Internet by the United States, which gave birth to it decades ago. An additional irritant has been the Bush administration's objection to a .xxx adult domain--an objection that ended with ICANN reversing itself and rejecting the proposal.

During the Tunisia summit, nations like Cuba, Iran and Zimbabwe blasted the United States for supporting free speech on the Internet--and called for more regulations under the aegis of the United Nations. "Those who have supported nihilistic and disorderly freedom of expression are beginning to see the fruits" of their efforts, said Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, whom Amnesty International accuses of using police to torture dissidents.

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