United Nations ponders Net's future

An international gathering spotlights criticism of U.S. dominance and feels out avenues for change. But some say a bureaucracy on the scale of the U.N.'s would only hamstring innovation.

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
UNITED NATIONS--The United Nations wants a big piece of the Internet.

At a summit here this week, delegates from around the world gathered to take a preliminary step toward U.N. involvement in some of the areas that are bedeviling Internet users and governments alike, including spam, network security, privacy and the regulation of the technical underpinnings that control the sprawling global network.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan set the tone in a speech Thursday, criticizing the current system through which Internet standards are set and domain names are handled, a process currently dominated by the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan. Such structures "must be made accessible and responsive to the needs of all the world's people," Annan said.


What's new:
The United Nations for the first time is taking a serious look at increasing its influence on the way the Internet runs, from technical standards to domain names to privacy and spam.

Bottom line:
Although the U.N. process is still in its early stages, the result could dramatically reshape the way the Internet is run and put an end to some of the informal, collaborative processes that exist today.

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On Friday, the summit will hear recommendations from five different U.N. working groups on topics including everything from domain names to root server operation to free speech and intellectual property to privacy.

Although the U.N. process is still in its early stages, the result could dramatically reshape the way the Internet is run and put an end to some of the informal, collaborative processes that exist today. The master "root servers" that serve up addresses for country codes and all other top-level domains, for instance, are operated in part by volunteers instead of through a U.N.-style apparatus.

Dozens of delegates from developing nations echoed Annan's remarks throughout the rest of the day, arguing that their governments do not have a voice in the way the Internet is operated and that more money and investment from richer nations is the only way to end the so-called digital divide. Khalid Saeed, the secretary of Pakistan's Ministry of Information Technology, said his country must "play an active role in all layers" of organizations that control the operation of the modern Internet.

Greater U.N. involvement is a direct threat to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which the Clinton administration created six years ago to oversee address allocation and top-level domains. While ICANN has attempted to be international in scope through diversity in board members and meeting locations, delegates have viewed the California-based nonprofit as too closely allied with the wealthier countries.

"Engineers have a saying, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"
--Vint Cerf, ICANN chair
"There are many existing players in the Internet space," ICANN Chair Vint Cerf said at the summit. "We should build on the foundation that they have created. Engineers have a saying, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"

Backing ICANN are groups such as the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and the U.S. Commerce Department, which fear that greater U.N. involvement will unleash the world's most extensive bureaucracy on the Internet and stifle innovation online. In a paper distributed at the summit, the ICC took issue with the popular term Internet governance, saying it "implies that there is a need for the Internet to be governed in some way, a view that ICC does not support."

A Bush administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity told CNET News.com that the administration was steadfastly opposed to the United Nations' plans, which are still preliminary but are expected to be formalized in a report to Annan in 2005.

Long-simmering resentments
Although ICANN is the most visible target, the summit also highlighted long-simmering resentments that developing countries have harbored against their wealthier counterparts. Because of decisions made during the early days of the Internet, for instance, China has been allocated only 9 million global Internet addresses, less than Stanford University's total of 17 million or IBM's total of 33 million. Over the next few years, however, adoption of IPv6 will eliminate these disparities.

IMAGE TEXT HERE In addition, the U.S. federal government retains control over key aspects of the Internet's domain name and addressing structure through its unique agreements with ICANN and VeriSign, which runs the master .com and .net database. Those agreements are a legacy of the days when the Internet was a U.S. government-funded project, but they nevertheless rankle--and worry--other countries.

Many delegates to the Global Forum on Internet Governance appeared to favor the International Telecommunication Union, a U.N. agency, taking over at least part of ICANN's functions. "We don't have to create any new organizations," said Alain le Gourrierec, ambassador from France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "We don't have to create any new agencies. The U.N. exists for this reason. The main point is to make sure the developing countries are part of this movement to make the Internet part of society."

Brazil's delegate to the summit, which drew about 380 attendees, went further, saying the Internet is "a vital international public utility, the management of which should not only take into account the interests of a few countries...a few stakeholders."

The few representatives of Internet technical bodies, such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), who participated in the summit were outnumbered but emphatic.

IMAGE TEXT HERE "The IETF has an extremely open process," said IETF Chair Harald Alvestrand. The group, which sets most of the standards that keep the Internet working, is "a place where stakeholders come together...Make sure when you talk about Internet governance, you're talking about things that really need governing."

"We're in danger of overregulating," not underregulating, said Karl Auerbach, a former ICANN board member and a veteran Internet engineer.

A laundry list
Most delegates used Thursday's summit to dress up their arguments in high-minded rhetoric about democracy and equality, but one recurring theme was a bit more practical: money. Delegates from poorer countries repeatedly cited the digital divide, arguing that it was widening, not narrowing, and that more foreign aid and investments from corporations would be vital over the next decade.

As far back as 1999, a U.N. agency proposed taxing all e-mail messages to pay for development aid. "There is an urgent need to find the resources to fund the global communications revolution to ensure that it is truly global," the 1999 report said. "The costs for users would be negligible: Sending 100 e-mails a day, each containing a 10-kilobyte document (a very long one), would raise a tax of just 1 cent."

Because of decisions made during the early days of the Internet, China has been allocated only 9 million global Internet addresses, less than Stanford University's total of 17 million or IBM's total of 33 million.
The United Nations hastily backed away from that proposal, however, after prominent members of the U.S. Congress slammed it as a "bureaucracy looking to get its greedy mitts on the Internet through new taxes."

Thursday's discussion was so far-ranging, veering from privacy to spam to ICANN to foreign aid, that it was often unclear where it was heading.

Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University, predicts that the U.N. delegates will end up focusing on the areas they could reasonably influence. "The only things they'll be able to get their hands on is ICANN and the Internet interconnection issue," Mueller said. "They're going to gravitate toward areas where they can actually do something."

Cuba's delegate, Juan Fernandez, was busy lobbying for help with the so-called interconnection problem. Fernandez, from Cuba's Ministry of Informatics and Communications, complained that it was unfair for poorer countries to have to pay such high Internet bills--currently, whoever connects pays for the traffic, and more Cubans browse American Web sites than the other way around.

"This is a very important issue to be considered in all the Internet backbone discussions," Fernandez said. "This topic is important enough to deserve the attention of all those who are here."