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Another U.N. Internet rift develops

A power struggle arises between the U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union and the Virginia-based Internet Society.

TUNIS, Tunisia--A brief cessation of hostilities between the United States and its critics on Internet management is raising a new question: Who's in charge next?

According to the agreement inked here this week, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan will create a new Internet Governance Forum that will meet for the first time in 2006. It's supposed to debate everything from spam to computer security to domain name management.

But because it's not clear which organization will be in charge of organizing the forum, a new round of backroom negotiating and political jockeying is already under way. The top two contenders: the International Telecommunication Union, a U.N. body, and the Internet Society, which counts online pioneers from the United States and Europe on its board of directors and is located in Reston, Va.

The stakes are high. Whatever group is in charge of organizing can set the tone for the forum, craft the rules and influence the final result.

"ITU has been requested to play a major role," ITU Secretary-General Yoshio Utsumi told reporters. "I am pleased that the role and responsibilities of the ITU have been recognized and requested to continue to play a major role in these areas. That's my very tremendous achievement."

But Matthew Shears, the Internet Society's Geneva-based director of public policy, told CNET that during the discussions earlier this week, "it became apparent that a number of delegations weren't comfortable with the role of the ITU in this regard."

"I don't think at this stage it's a done deal for anyone," Shears said. "We can't rush into this and determine roles by entities without giving sufficient thought."

A State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States favored an approach led by the private sector. (The Internet Society is a private-sector membership organization that boasts 20,000 members in more than 180 nations.)

The ITU is a Geneva-based treaty organization with a budget of $530 million that sets technical standards and coordinates spectrum and the telephone network.

Andrew McLaughlin, Google's senior policy counsel, said he's "mildly concerned" about the creation of the forum.

"If the (forum) is not configured and understood properly, it has the potential to drain off scarce resources from the already existing panoply of existing organizations," McLaughlin said.

The ITU is mentioned in the final agreement, but only in a vague reference that says it can be used if necessary.

During the presummit negotiations, the U.S., Australia and Singapore had pushed hard for an explicit mention of the Internet Society, arguing that it had valuable expertise that didn't exist in the U.N. But Brazil and others opposed the request, and eventually the U.S. apparently decided it wasn't worth jeopardizing the entire agreement.

In something of an ironic twist, the Internet Society once came close to dominating domain name management. When the U.S. government was considering how to privatize those functions in 1996, the society's president chaired a so-called International Ad-Hoc Committee that proposed to take over the job, and to add seven new domain names including .arts and .web.

But that never happened. Instead, the Clinton administration chose to set up the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.