WASHINGTON--Less than two weeks before a United Nations summit on the Internet begins, technology firms including Google, IBM and Microsoft are supporting the Bush administration's efforts to maintain the United States' unique influence over domain names.
In what amounted to a public effort to back the status quo, those firms sent representatives to an event here organized to highlight what some participants touted as the security and stability of the current form of Internet governance. MCI, BellSouth and Cisco Systems also participated.
Because it's home to 200 million Internet users and nearly half of the world's electronic commerce, the United States is in a unique position to ensure there's not a slowdown in Net growth, Michael D. Gallagher, the U.S. Commerce Department's assistant secretary for communications and information, said at the event. The gathering was organized by the Information Technology Association of America.
"The U.S. does not support top-down intergovernmental control of the Internet," Gallagher said at a panel discussion composed of technology industry and government representatives. "We do not believe in adding an inter-governmental layer of bureaucracy over such a dynamic medium as the Internet."
The United Nations and one of its agencies, the International Telecommunication Union, have scheduled the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunisia for Nov. 16 to 18. It's designed in part to provide other nations with a forum to debate alternatives to the current form of Internet governance, which is heavily influenced by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)--a California nonprofit created by the Clinton administration--and the Commerce Department.
Business groups have long expressed worry that greater U.N. control could usher in higher taxes, curbs on free speech and reams of new regulations. "That is one of our biggest concerns, that politics that have nothing to do with ICANN start trickling into how the Internet is going to be run," said Rick Lane, vice president for government affairs at News Corp.
"It is because the U.S. government has had the lighest possible touch on the Internet...that we support the idea that we do not need another international body," said Harris Miller, president of ITAA.
A global spat
Nearly all the components of Internet governance already are distributed by geographic region. Internet addresses are assigned by regional organizations including ones in Europe, Asia and Latin America, and national governments currently control country code domains (such as .jp for Japan).
"The real work of domain name system happens in a very distributed, very decentralized way," said Andrew McLaughlin, Google's senior policy counsel and a former ICANN official. "The best way to keep that vector of development growing is to keep this a loosely, lightly coordinated system." If the U.S. government wanted to pull the plug on google.co.uk, it could not, McLaughlin said.
But ICANN does approve new top-level domains and it does wield some influence over the Internet's root severs. Because the organization is located in California, some nations perceive it as having an uncomfortably close relationship to the U.S. federal government. As a result, nations such as Russia, Brazil and Iran have published statements saying that no "single government" should have a "pre-eminent role" in terms of Internet governance. The European Union said in September that it's "very firm" on Internet governance reform.
Gallagher, from the U.S. Commerce Department, said that foreign governments' concern over the American-dominated Net governance system was misplaced.
"It's clear that they don't understand how the DNS is structured, how it works," he said, talking about the Domain Name System. "For those of you that are looking for the holy grail, for the meaning of life, for the fountain of youth, it does not lie in the DNS...where you need to look is inside yourselves and the policies you establish and the environments you create for your citizens."
Any multigovernmental body--based at the United Nations or anywhere else--would undermine the current model that is based around the private sector, one State Department official said.
"We are going to WSIS arguing for a system that is very light-handed, that is minimalist but essential for stability and security," said Richard Beaird, the department's senior deputy U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy. "Others, including the European Union, would like to replace that with an intergovernmental council. We do not think that is the right way to go."