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Bush administration opposes U.N. Net control

One State Department official predicts: "In no way can we imagine a situation in which we will allow what works very well to be undone."

WASHINGTON--In a sign that traditionally obscure discussions about Internet control have taken on new prominence, President Bush broached the topic in a meeting this week with European Commission President Jos? Barroso.

The high-level meeting, which took place at the White House on Tuesday, comes as the United States is facing a revolt among third-world nations that are demanding reduced American influence over key aspects of the Internet. The European Commission recently threw its support behind one of the reform proposals that's scheduled to be discussed at a United Nations summit in November.

"Obviously we want to find common ground, we want a successful summit, but we're not giving away our principles in order to get there," U.S. Ambassador David Gross, the State Department's coordinator for information policy, said Thursday. Bush discussed the European Commission's stand with Barroso, Gross said without elaborating. The White House did not provide details.

At the heart of this international political spat is the unique influence that the U.S. federal government enjoys over Internet addresses and the master database of top-level domain names--a legacy of the network's governmental origins years ago. The Bush administration recently raised objections to the proposed addition of .xxx as a red-light district for pornographers, for instance, a veto power that no other government is able to wield.

During a series of meetings organized by the United Nations, ministers from dozens of other countries including China and Cuba have raised objections and demanded more influence--a prospect that worries free-speech advocates and business groups who are concerned about more regulation and a more hostile climate for electronic commerce in the future. The CompTIA trade association, for instance, has stressed that it supports a "market-based solutions" approach rather than expanded U.N. control. So has Nominet, which runs the .uk domain.

'What's good for the world'
One reason why businesses are alarmed is the lengthy list of suggestions that have been advanced by nations participating in the U.N. process. Those include new mandates for "consumer protection," the power to tax domain names to pay for "universal access," and folding the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) into a U.N. agency. The United Nations has previously suggested creating an international tax bureaucracy and once floated the idea of taxing e-mail, saying in a report (PDF) that a 1 cent tax on 100 messages would be "negligible."

At Thursday's meeting of the State Department's Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy, officials stressed that the U.S. government is not about to relinquish its influence over a system that has performed well for decades.

"For all of you involved in Internet governance and the model that has been set up, we support it and we believe it's what's good for the world," said Josette Shiner, the State Department's undersecretary for economic, business, and agricultural affairs. "In no way can we imagine a situation in which we will allow what works very well to be undone."

Sometimes the normal diplomatic ground rules should be discarded, Gross said: "We want to be very clear, and not necessarily fuzz things up with diplomatic language that may get us in trouble down the road."

The U.S. position is bipartisan. Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have sent Gross a letter urging him not to succumb to international pressure, and a U.S. senator has introduced a nonbinding resolution that would protect the Net from hostile takeover at the summit in Tunisia.

Discussion with other nations and the European Union on the topic has been going on for years, and differences in policy opinions are nothing new, Gross acknowledged. In July, shortly after the Bush administration voiced its unyielding position on how the Internet's so-called root servers and addresses should be managed, a United Nations working group released a report that lobbed a challenge to U.S. dominance.

Then, as Gross tells it, the European Union sprung a last-minute plan proposing a "cooperative model" for multi-governmental control over the Internet at a preparatory meeting for the summit in Geneva earlier this month. "We've explained to them in a variety of ways why we don't think that's appropriate," he said.