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Breaking America's grip on the net
After troubled negotiations in Geneva, the US may be forced to relinquish control of the internet to a coalition of governments
Thursday October 6, 2005
You would expect an announcement that would forever change the face of the internet to be a grand affair - a big stage, spotlights, media scrums and a charismatic frontman working the crowd.
But unless you knew where he was sitting, all you got was David Hendon's slightly apprehensive voice through a beige plastic earbox. The words were calm, measured and unexciting, but their implications will be felt for generations to come.
Hendon is the Department for Trade and Industry's director of business relations and was in Geneva representing the UK government and European Union at the third and final preparatory meeting for next month's World Summit on the Information Society. He had just announced a political coup over the running of the internet.
Old allies in world politics, representatives from the UK and US sat just feet away from each other, but all looked straight ahead as Hendon explained the EU had decided to end the US government's unilateral control of the internet and put in place a new body that would now run this revolutionary communications medium.
The issue of who should control the net had proved an extremely divisive issue, and for 11 days the world's governments traded blows. For the vast majority of people who use the internet, the only real concern is getting on it. But with the internet now essential to countries' basic infrastructure - Brazil relies on it for 90% of its tax collection - the question of who has control has become critical.
And the unwelcome answer for many is that it is the US government. In the early days, an enlightened Department of Commerce (DoC) pushed and funded expansion of the internet. And when it became global, it created a private company, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) to run it.
But the DoC retained overall control, and in June stated what many had always feared: that it would retain indefinite control of the internet's foundation - its "root servers", which act as the basic directory for the whole internet.
A number of countries represented in Geneva, including Brazil, China, Cuba, Iran and several African states, insisted the US give up control, but it refused. The meeting "was going nowhere", Hendon says, and so the EU took a bold step and proposed two stark changes: a new forum that would decide public policy, and a "cooperation model" comprising governments that would be in overall charge.
Much to the distress of the US, the idea proved popular. Its representative hit back, stating that it "can't in any way allow any changes" that went against the "historic role" of the US in controlling the top level of the internet.
But the refusal to budge only strengthened opposition, and now the world's governments are expected to agree a deal to award themselves ultimate control. It will be officially raised at a UN summit of world leaders next month and, faced with international consensus, there is little the US government can do but acquiesce.
But will this move mean, as the US ambassador David Gross argued, that "even on technical details, the industry will have to follow government-set policies, UN-set policies"?
No, according to Nitin Desai, the UN's special adviser on internet governance. "There is clearly an acceptance here that governments are not concerned with the technical and operational management of the internet. Standards are set by the users."
Hendon is also adamant: "The really important point is that the EU doesn't want to see this change as bringing new government control over the internet. Governments will only be involved where they need to be and only on issues setting the top-level framework."
But expert and author of Ruling the Root, Milton Mueller, is not so sure. An overseeing council "could interfere with standards. What would stop it saying 'when you're making this standard for data transfer you have to include some kind of surveillance for law enforcement'?"
Then there is human rights. China has attracted criticism for filtering content from the net within its borders. Tunisia - host of the World Summit - has also come under attack for silencing online voices. Mueller doesn't see a governmental overseeing council having any impact: "What human rights groups want is for someone to be able to bring some kind of enforceable claim to stop them violating people's rights. But how's that going to happen? I can't see that a council is going to be able to improve the human rights situation."
And what about business? Will a governmental body running the internet add unnecessary bureaucracy or will it bring clarity and a coherent system? Mueller is unsure: "The idea of the council is so vague. It's not clear to me that governments know what to do about anything at this stage apart from get in the way of things that other people do."
There are still dozens of unanswered questions but all the answers are pointing the same way: international governments deciding the internet's future. The internet will never be the same again.
Guardian Unlimited ; Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005