FAQ: Tunisia summit and Internet governance

A last-minute deal at the world summit quelled debate, for now anyway, over Internet management. But what does it all mean and what's down the line?

Declan McCullagh
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.
4 min read
TUNIS, Tunisia--Thousands of representatives of national governments, corporations and nonprofit organizations began meeting here Wednesday for a summit that was expected to decide the future of Internet management.

But a last-minute deal at the World Summit on the Information Society effectively shifted the debate to a new United Nations "Internet Governance Forum" that's scheduled to meet for the first time next year.

CNET News.com has covered earlier stages in this process, including a meeting last year in New York, and has prepared the following list of Frequently Asked Questions to summarize what's going on.

What's the purpose of this summit, anyway?
The original purpose was so broad as to be practically non-controversial: bridging the so-called digital divide, sharing technology, less-developed nations asking for cash from wealthier ones, and so on.

But over the last 18 months, the focus shifted from generalized griping about the alleged inequities of the technological age to more specific complaints. Briefly put, nations like China, Cuba, Mozambique and Zimbabwe charge that the U.S. government enjoys too much influence over the way the Internet is managed.

What are they saying?
It depends on who you talk to, and it's not always easy to filter out the political posturing and anti-American sentiments. Cuba's delegate, for instance, told summit attendees on Wednesday that Fidel Castro wanted to end "media manipulation by rich countries."

"It is necessary to create an multinational democratic institutionality which administers this network of networks," the Cuba delegate said.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe wanted his country to participate in thwarting "computer hacking, electronic fraud, and cyberterrorism," but not without "challenging the bully-boy mentality that has driven the unipolar world."

Okay, but what do they actually want?
Ideally, many of the delegates would like a United Nations bureaucracy to supplant--perhaps even replace--the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN approves new top-level domain names (think .biz and .xxx), sets minimum prices for domain names, and oversees a dispute-resolution process for domain names.

But substantial changes aren't going to happen, at least not anytime soon. The U.S. and its critics effectively cut a deal this week that shifts the debate to the IGF.

Why did this deal happen?
It's not entirely clear, and the language adopted in some of the statements (PDF) is vague enough that all sides can claim some sort of victory.

One observer, University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist, said the "U.S. simply had a very strong hand and played it well." But the European Union may not have been as committed to radical change as press reports indicated over the last few months, Geist said, and in the end it decided to back down from a public fight.

So this is just going to happen all over again in a few months?
Sort of. The deal creates a U.N. body--the IGF--that's devoted to just discussions and has no power to regulate. So because all delegates can do is talk, expect plenty of it.

What's most likely to happen is that the IGF will schedule a series of smaller meetings, with the first one in Greece in 2006. Then, in 2010, the U.N. will reconvene another major summit to decide what to do next. Secretary-General Kofi Annan hinted at this on Wednesday, saying the United Nations works on five-year plans.

What would have happened if there was no deal, anyway?
The worst-case scenario is kind of a nuclear option for the Internet. It would be a Balkanized Internet in which the U.S. attempts to retain control of its root servers and a large portion of the world veers in an incompatible direction.

A new top-level domain would not be visible in the U.S. and its client states--but would be used in many other nations. The downside, of course, comes when two computers find different Web sites at the same address. It would be as bizarre as calling the same telephone number from two phones--and reaching two different people.

Does the U.S. really have that much power?
Actually, probably not. What's crucial here is the operation of the Internet's 13 root servers, which guide traffic to the massive databases that contain addresses for all the individual top-level domains, such as .com, .net, .edu, and the country code domains like .uk and .jp. The U.S. government--through ICANN--controls the master database currently used by every root server.

Not all the root servers, named A through M, are in the United States. The M server is operated by the WIDE Project in Tokyo, and the K server is managed by Amsterdam-based RIPE. The F, I and J servers point to many addresses around the world through the anycast protocol, yielding a total of 80 locations in 34 countries.

The U.S. government could order the root servers to add or delete a top-level domain, right?
Yep, though in practice the feds have never abused their power.

The reality is whoever controls the root servers has the final authority about what new top-level domains are added or deleted. If the root server operators receive a set of top-level domains they find irrational, only the U.S-based ones can be forced by U.S. law to use it.