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U.S. reaches Net detente with U.N.

United States won't give up Net management, but deal from United Nations summit in Tunisia creates new forum for more talks. Photo: Summit in Tunisia

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
6 min read
TUNIS, Tunisia--The Bush administration and its critics at a United Nations summit here have inked a broad agreement on global Internet management that will preclude any dramatic showdown this week.

By signing the statement (PDF), the Bush administration formally endorsed the creation of an "Internet Governance Forum" that will meet for the first time in 2006 under the auspices of the United Nations. The forum is meant to be a central point for global discussions of everything from computer security and online crime to spam and other "misuses of the Internet."

What the agreement does not do is require the United States to relinquish its unique influence over the Internet's operations. The statement takes "no action regarding existing institutions," David Gross, the ambassador leading the U.S. delegation, said Wednesday. "It created no new international organizations."

The last-minute deal, reached just hours before the World Summit on the Information Society, or WSIS, began Wednesday, effectively postpones a long-simmering dispute over the future of Internet management. China, Cuba, South Africa and other nations have argued that the U.S. and other wealthier nations must share power--complaints that now will be taken to the new U.N. forum.

"It is a matter of justice and legitimacy that all people must have a say in the way the Internet is governed," Luisa Diogo, the prime minister of Mozambique, told the thousands of delegates who have gathered in Tunisia's capital city.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe offered a more ominous warning. The U.S. and allies such as the United Kingdom unreasonably "insist on being world policemen on the management of the Internet," and that must change, Mugabe said.

At issue in this dispute is the unique influence the U.S. government wields over the master list of top-level domain names--such as .com, .org, and country codes including .uk and .jp--as a result of the network's historical origins. In addition, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, the nonprofit organization created by the Clinton administration to oversee day-to-day management of the Internet, is located in Marina del Rey, Calif.

In June, the Bush administration announced that it had no plans to relinquish its role as at least a symbolic guarantor of the stability of the Internet. A statement published at the time backed the current ICANN structure and said "no action" will be taken that could destabilize the Internet.

Over the last few months, the administration's envoys have found themselves increasingly isolated in preliminary meetings leading up to the Tunisia summit.

The European Union, for instance, implicitly backed the creation of a stronger U.N. body that could even be granted regulatory powers. But as the official start of the summit on Wednesday neared, China and other critics chose to agree to the set of principles and instead take their complaints to the newly created U.N. forum during its first meeting next year, which is expected to take place in Greece.

Vague principles for forum
Because the principles adopted this week are so broad, nearly everyone involved in the discussions can boast a political victory.

The United States stressed that the U.N. forum will have no regulatory power. "It will have no oversight function, (remain) nonoperational and engage only in dialogue," Ambassador Gross said. We have "no concerns that it would morph into something unsavory."

Gross also pointed to language in the agreement saying the forum should be "subject to periodic review"--meaning, he said, it will not become a permanent bureaucracy.

Also included in the broad principles: The forum shall "identify emerging issues, bring them to the attention of the relevant bodies and the general public," "facilitate discourse between bodies dealing with different cross-cutting international public policies regarding the Internet" and discuss "issues relating to critical Internet resources."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, on the other hand, said the agreement highlights "the need for more

international participation in discussions of Internet governance issues. The question is how to achieve this. Let those discussions continue."

Internet showdown postponed

A debate on the future of the Internet will resume at an event in Greece next year to inaugurate a new U.N. Internet Governance Forum. Following are excerpts from the document creating that forum.

The mandate of the IGF is to:

  • Discuss public-policy issues related to key elements of Internet governance in order to foster the sustainability, robustness, security, stability and development of the Internet
  • Facilitate discourse between bodies dealing with different cross-cutting international public policies regarding the Internet
  • Discuss topics relating to critical Internet resources
  • Help find solutions to the issues arising from the use and misuse of the Internet, of particular concern to everyday users
  • More guidelines:

  • The IGF would have no oversight function and would not replace existing arrangements, mechanisms, institutions or organizations
  • Countries should not be involved in decisions regarding another country's top-level domain, such as .uk or .jp. Their legitimate interests need to be respected, upheld and addressed.
  • Source: World Summit on the Information Society

    Annan acknowledged that the U.S. has exercised its Internet oversight "fairly and honorably" but said change has become necessary. The United Nations has no desire to "control or police the Internet," Annan added.

    That stance seemed to be an effort to placate conservative groups and businesses, especially in the United States, which are alarmed at what some view as the prospect of a thoroughly corrupt and unaccountable bureaucracy seizing control of Internet management.

    A report released this week by the National Taxpayers Union warned that "controlling Internet content while securing another income source through the United Nations seems an attractive policy outcome for politicians looking to suppress dissent and to prop up financially ailing bureaucracies."

    The Computing Technology Industry Association, or CompTIA, has stressed that it supports a "market-based solutions" approach rather than expanded U.N. control. So have a roster of tech companies, including Google, IBM and Microsoft, and members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

    One reason why businesses are alarmed is the lengthy list of suggestions that have been advanced in the past 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 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 e-mail messages would be "negligible."

    Violence before summit
    The lead-up to the WSIS has been marred by violence against journalists and human rights activists. French journalist Christophe Boltanski, who had arrived early to write about Tunisia President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's civil-liberties record, was stabbed in an assault by four men and not aided by nearby police. The Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement that such attacks are characteristic of Tunisia's secret police.

    In another incident, journalists and civil-liberties activists planning their own summit on human rights were assaulted and detained by Tunisian police. In response, members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange said they would pull out of the summit.

    Human rights groups have warned for years that Ben Ali's autocratic regime has imprisoned and tortured political opponents and harassed full-time journalists and part-time online scribes.