Internet showdown in Tunis

newsmaker U.S. ambassador David Gross heads to a U.N. conference to make a case to leave U.S. control over the Internet alone. Will the world listen?

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
5 min read
The United Nations' World Summit on the Information Society began with a high-minded purpose: to bridge the technological gap between richer and poorer nations. But now the WSIS event, which begins Nov. 16 in Tunisia, has transformed into a week-long debate about who should control key portions of the Internet. Delegates from nations like Iran, China, and Cuba have been clear in what they want: less control by the U.S. government. Instead, they've suggested creation of some sort of cyberbureaucracy---perhaps under the U.N. International Telecommunication Union.

Those arguments have met with a cold shoulder in Washington. The Bush administration said in no uncertain terms in June that it intended to relinquish the United States' unique influence over domain names and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) that position. But that doesn't advocate relinquishing total control or creation of a U.N. bureaucracy.

CNET News.com's chief political correspondent, Declan McCullagh, will be reporting direct from the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia beginning next week.

If the U.N. prevails in this international political spat, business groups worry that domain name fees would go up and regulations would increase. If no agreement is reached, there's always the possibility of a bifurcated Internet divided by geographical region.

CNET News.com recently spoke with Ambassador of Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs David Gross, who's leading the U.S. delegation to Tunisia. Gross previously was a telecommunications lawyer and a lobbyist for AirTouch Communications (now part of Vodafone).

Q: What are the stakes at the WSIS summit?
The stakes are really very high. The focus of the summit originally--and we believe still--is on the use of technology to take advantage of the historic opportunity to better everyone around the world, economically, socially and politically. Those are very high stakes.

How much of the current opposition over this issue is a result of global tensions regarding the U.S. as the world's lone superpower and involvement in Iraq?
This is an issue that I think should be and will be addressed on its merits. The Internet has been an extraordinary development in the history of the world. There are about a billion people connected to the Internet in a remarkably short period of time.

The Internet is technically, constantly changing...We're not interested in trying to lock in the current system as the right system.

The system has worked extraordinarily well and arguably better than any other technology that's ever been rolled out. We seek to ensure that that continued advancement goes forward. I know by the way that the president just this afternoon (Thursday) is awarding the Medal of Freedom to a host of extraordinary Americans. Two of those Americans include Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, who are often referred to as the fathers of the Internet.

Does the U.S. government have too much control of Internet governance?
If you look at it the way most people would, it's a very bottom-up approach. There are a lot of players--civil society and the private sector--that play an important role. Certainly, the U.S. government has played an extraordinarily important role in the past. It was because of the U.S. government and the research funded by it that the Internet exists in the first place.

We think it's working very well. We don't think there are any pressing problems associated with it.

At the preliminary meeting in New York last year, I found that discussions were all over the map, including spam, viruses and computer security. Is there a lack of focus here?
Issues like spam and cybercrime and viruses are extraordinarily important. We've encouraged WSIS and other forums to work cooperatively in solving those issues. So we seek to have a very robust and inclusive discussion about these issues and others as well.

If critics of the U.S. join forces at WSIS and oppose the U.S., are there any red lines for the U.S that the administration would find intolerable?
We've been very clear in what we think the summit should be accomplishing and should be focusing on. We continue to work with governments around the world and with civil society and with the private sector to secure an outcome

that everyone can be proud of. I'm not worried too much about other results.

So there's no red line?
At the end of June, the administration issued its four principles. We, of course, stick by those four principles. They're very clear; the world asked us to issue clear principles. We make clear what the U.S. government will continue to do and what we seek to do with the world going forward. That includes engaging in a dialogue in multiple forums.

We don't think of these things as red lines or blue lines or green lines. Rather, we think of these things as a clear articulation of where the world should be going.

Is the U.S. worried about splitting the root, so that computers in two nations will find different Web sites at the same domain name?
I have not heard any spokesperson for a government say that their government was interested in the creation of new root systems. I've heard governments talk about other governments being interested. I think that's important.

The government officials I've spoken with say all of the incentives are to work on the current system. I have not heard any government official suggest that there would be benefits to that government in the creation of an independent root system.

Any new system, any new network would, it seems to us, want to be interoperable with the current system. One of the keys here that is often overlooked is that the Internet is technically, constantly changing. It's constantly evolving and getting better technically. We're not interested in trying to lock in the current system as the right system.

Have there been any behind-the-door negotiations to try to hammer out an accord prior to Tunisia?
We've had a series of prepcoms (preparatory committee meetings) including one in Geneva. That prepcom will be resumed in Tunis starting on Sunday. We, of course, reached out and talked with colleagues around the world and talked with governments and the private sector. We'll see what happens.

Which allies does the U.S. government have here? Even Europe seems to have joined China, Cuba, Iran and so on.
It's hard to pick and choose individual countries. I think the key here is that what I heard at Geneva at the prepcom is that there's important common ground that can and will form the basis of a very productive meeting.

You can't name any allies?
I make it a point never to characterize other governments' positions, so I'm not going to do it at this stage.

What's the best-case scenario out of WSIS?
The best case is the world gathers together and reaffirms the importance of using technology to better people around the world; provide increased opportunity for people economically, socially and politically. That would be a very important development.

How much of this dispute is symbolic? If the U.S. said, "We'll leave decisions to ICANN," which has an international board of directors, would that be enough?
I don't know whether any other group, critics or friends would be satisfied (and I'd rather not speculate).