U.S. Control of Internet Remains Issue

A U.N.-sponsored Internet conference ended Thursday with little to show in closing the issue of U.S. control over how people around the world access e-mail and Web sites.

With no concrete recommendations for action, the only certainty going forward is that any resentment about the American influence will only grow as more users from the developing world come online, changing the face of the global network.

"I think that there are many Third World countries and developing countries and people from Asia and so on who are pressuring for changes," said Augusto Gadelha Viera, coordinator of the Brazilian Internet steering committee and chairman of a closing session on emerging issues at the four-day Internet Governance Forum.

As the conference drew to a close, Russian representative Konstantin Novoderejhkin called on the United Nations secretary-general to create a working group to develop "practical steps" for moving Internet governance "under the control of the international community."

At issue is control over Internet domain names, the monikers after the "dot" like "com" and "org" that are crucial for computers to find Web sites and route e-mail.

The domain name system is now controlled by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a Marina del Rey, Calif.-based nonprofit over which the U.S. government retains veto power. By controlling the core systems, the United States indirectly influences the way much of the world uses the Internet.

The Internet Governance Forum, the result of a compromise world leaders reached two years ago to try to resolve the issue of U.S. control, has no decision-making powers. At most those seeking change can use the conference to pressure the United States to cede control.

The United States insists that the existing arrangements ensure the Internet's stability and prevent a country from trying to, say, censor Web sites by pulling entries out of the domain name directories.

Supporters of the current system denounced the Russian proposal.

"The Russian proposal seeks to exponentially increase government interference in the ICANN process, introducing a dangerous and destabilizing force into a global Internet addressing system that has been a paragon of stability under the current oversight structure," said Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice, a coalition of high-tech leaders like Time Warner Inc.'s AOL, eBay Inc. and Yahoo Inc.

Brazilian officials, however, called for an independent ICANN and sought more concrete recommendations out of the forum -- if not this year, then by the time the last one is held in 2010.

"As we approach the end we're going to have to see what the world wants and perhaps it will be necessary to take more concrete decisions, or if not decisions, recommendations," said Hadil da Rocha Vianna, co-chairman of the forum's advisory group and director of science and technology at Brazil's foreign ministry.

There's little indication, though, that the U.S. government and ICANN plan to cede their roles over domain names anytime soon.

Internet pioneer Vint Cerf, who stepped down as ICANN's chairman earlier this month, dismissed the complaints as misguided.

"I think (there are) a small number of countries that are very agitated and almost don't care what the facts are," he said. "It's a very small vocal group bothered by this issue. ICANN has existed for eight years and done a great job with its plans for internationalization."

ICANN recently elected its first chairman from outside the United States and started tests on domain names entirely in other languages, something many countries have sought to expand Internet usage among those unfamiliar with English.

But ICANN still must craft guidelines on how to assign such names and resolve any conflicts or complaints. For example, should the operators of China's ".cn" automatically be entitled to the Chinese version of that and ".com," or might Taiwan have a claim as well?

Governments that criticize ICANN and the U.S. role are seeking more influence over such policy matters.

Cerf said the forum's mandate as a discussion venue free of decisions or recommendations results in better dialogue. The climate would change, he said, if participants spent their time hammering out consensual agreements.

"It's a non-negotiating climate and I can't emphasize how important that is," Cerf said. "The opinions expressed here help inform ICANN."

Other issues discussed at the forum included how to provide greater Internet access to the 5 billion people around the world still offline and how to combat cybercrime like child pornography, identity theft, credit card fraud and terrorism.

The next forum will held next year in New Delhi, India.

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