Who should govern the Net?

A U.N. summit ends with a consensus that developing countries must have more influence on the way the Internet is run, but conclusions about what should be done are vague.

UNITED NATIONS--A United Nations summit ended Friday with a consensus that poorer nations must have more influence on the way the Internet is run, but with no agreement among delegates on the details.

The summit, which lasted two days and was organized by a U.N. Internet task force, was intended to provide a platform for developing countries to offer a laundry list of their proposals on topics from spam to root server operation.

But when five different working groups reported their conclusions Friday morning, the only agreement was on vague and noncontroversial principles about what should be done instead of specific proposals about how to make it happen.

One working group said the U.N. should take steps to advance the "neutrality, accountability and the participatory character" of the Internet and "continue to address the challenges of internationalizing of decision making" currently overseen by organizations such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Another hoped the United Nations would "adopt a collaborative approach that focused on facilitation and identification of best practices."

The task force will continue to meet through 2005 to work toward a goal of presenting a report to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan at a meeting in Tunisia next year. Louise Frechette, the U.N. deputy secretary general, said in closing remarks that this week's event highlighted the "need for international cooperation to develop global standards in a number of areas including spam, network security, privacy and information security."

Representatives from ICANN, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) defended the Internet's current organizational structure by saying their meetings are open to the public and many deliberations are conducted online, including through e-mail mailing lists.

"Here is a simple request," said John Gage, Sun Microsystems' chief researcher and a board member of the Internet Society. "Brazil, South Africa, Spain, Egypt, every country in this room should provide a tiny scholarship fund for the smart young engineers in their country to come to the Internet Engineering Task Force meeting. Because you meet everyone who determines the technical future of the Internet."

One concern is that if third-world countries without a tradition of tolerance of free expression get more involved in running the Internet, censorship will inevitably result. The World Press Freedom Committee of Reston, Va., distributed a position paper at the summit, warning that "authoritarian governments, which already censor their own Internet traffic, (will) seek content controls internationally and legitimization of such controls nationally."

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