U.S. reaches Net detente with U.N.

United States won't give up Net management, but deal from United Nations summit in Tunisia creates new forum for more talks. Photo: Summit in Tunisia

TUNIS, Tunisia--The Bush administration and its critics at a United Nations summit here have inked a broad agreement on global Internet management that will preclude any dramatic showdown this week.

By signing the statement (PDF), the Bush administration formally endorsed the creation of an "Internet Governance Forum" that will meet for the first time in 2006 under the auspices of the United Nations. The forum is meant to be a central point for global discussions of everything from computer security and online crime to spam and other "misuses of the Internet."

What the agreement does not do is require the United States to relinquish its unique influence over the Internet's operations. The statement takes "no action regarding existing institutions," David Gross, the ambassador leading the U.S. delegation, said Wednesday. "It created no new international organizations."

The last-minute deal, reached just hours before the World Summit on the Information Society, or WSIS, began Wednesday, effectively postpones a long-simmering dispute over the future of Internet management. China, Cuba, South Africa and other nations have argued that the U.S. and other wealthier nations must share power--complaints that now will be taken to the new U.N. forum.

"It is a matter of justice and legitimacy that all people must have a say in the way the Internet is governed," Luisa Diogo, the prime minister of Mozambique, told the thousands of delegates who have gathered in Tunisia's capital city.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe offered a more ominous warning. The U.S. and allies such as the United Kingdom unreasonably "insist on being world policemen on the management of the Internet," and that must change, Mugabe said.

At issue in this dispute is the unique influence the U.S. government wields over the master list of top-level domain names--such as .com, .org, and country codes including .uk and .jp--as a result of the network's historical origins. In addition, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, the nonprofit organization created by the Clinton administration to oversee day-to-day management of the Internet, is located in Marina del Rey, Calif.

In June, the Bush administration announced that it had no plans to relinquish its role as at least a symbolic guarantor of the stability of the Internet. A statement published at the time backed the current ICANN structure and said "no action" will be taken that could destabilize the Internet.

Over the last few months, the administration's envoys have found themselves increasingly isolated in preliminary meetings leading up to the Tunisia summit.

The European Union, for instance, implicitly backed the creation of a stronger U.N. body that could even be granted regulatory powers. But as the official start of the summit on Wednesday neared, China and other critics chose to agree to the set of principles and instead take their complaints to the newly created U.N. forum during its first meeting next year, which is expected to take place in Greece.

Vague principles for forum
Because the principles adopted this week are so broad, nearly everyone involved in the discussions can boast a political victory.

The United States stressed that the U.N. forum will have no regulatory power. "It will have no oversight function, (remain) nonoperational and engage only in dialogue," Ambassador Gross said. We have "no concerns that it would morph into something unsavory."

Gross also pointed to language in the agreement saying the forum should be "subject to periodic review"--meaning, he said, it will not become a permanent bureaucracy.

Also included in the broad principles: The forum shall "identify emerging issues, bring them to the attention of the relevant bodies and the general public," "facilitate discourse between bodies dealing with different cross-cutting international public policies regarding the Internet" and discuss "issues relating to critical Internet resources."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, on the other hand, said the agreement highlights "the need for more

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