U.N. bureaucrats and telecommunications ministers from many less-developed nationshas undue influence over how things run online. Now they want to be the ones in charge.
While the formal proposal from a U.N. working group will be released July 18, it's already clear what it will contain. A preliminary summary of governmental views claims there's a "convergence of views" supporting a new organization to oversee crucial Internet functions, most likely under the aegis of the United Nations or the .
This development represents a grave political challenge to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which was birthed by the U.S. government to handle some of those topics.
A recent closed-door meeting in Geneva convened by the U.N.'s Working Group on Internet Governance offers clues about the plot to dethrone ICANN. As these excerpts from a transcript show, dissatisfaction and general-purpose griping is rampant:
Syria: "There's more and more spam every day. Who are the victims? Developing and least-developed countries, too. There is no serious intention to stop this spam by those who are the transporters of the spam, because they benefit...The only solution is for us to buy equipment from the countries which send this spam in order to deal with spam. However, this, we believe, is not acceptable."
Brazil, responding to ICANN's approval of .xxx domains: "For those that are still wondering, let's be specific, Mr. Chairman. They are talking about pornography. These are things that go very deep in our values in many of our countries. In my country, Brazil, we are very worried about this kind of decision-making process where they simply decide upon creating such new top-level generic domain names."
China: "We feel that the public policy issue of Internet should be solved jointly by the sovereign states in the U.N. framework...For instance, spam, network security and cyberspace--we should look for an appropriate specialized agency of the United Nations as a competent body."
Ghana: "There was unanimity for the need for an additional body...This body would therefore address all issues relating to the Internet within the confines of the available expertise which would be anchored at the U.N."
The "nuclear option"
Those proclamations served to flush out the Bush administration, which recently announced that it will not domain names and addresses to anyone else.
That high-profile snub of the United Nations could presage an international showdown. The possibility of a political flap over what has long been an abstruse Net-governance issue casts a shadow over ICANN's meeting this week in Luxembourg, and will be the topic of a July 28 symposium in Washington, D.C., called "Regime Change on the Internet."
Beyond the usual levers of diplomatic pressure and public kvetching, Brazil and China could choose what amounts to the nuclear option: a fragmented root. That means a new top-level domain would not be approved by ICANN--but would be recognized and used by large portions of the rest of the world. The downside, of course, is that the nuclear option could create a Balkanized Internet where two computers find different Web sites at the same address.
"It wasn't until now" that a fragmented root was being talked about, says Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University and participant in the Internet Governance Project. "China and other countries might be pursuing responses that lead to fragmentation."
Such an outcome remains remote, but it could happen. That possibility means an obscure debate about Internet governance has suddenly become surprisingly important.