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Internet governance: Information Summit approaches

United States Strives to Maintain Internet Dynamism

Negotiations enter final phase as Information Summit approaches

By Charlene Porter
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – U.S. officials are engaged in ongoing talks with other governments, private enterprise and nongovernmental organizations working to craft an agreement on the future of Internet governance for presentation at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) to be held in Tunis, Tunisia, November 16-18.

Discussions continue after a preparatory conference ended in Geneva September 30 without agreement to bridge diverse positions on how, by whom and to what degree the Internet should be governed or regulated.

The governance issue has come to the forefront in the ongoing talks, but the summit process was conceived by the United Nations General Assembly as a forum for discussions about giving broader access to the benefits of information and communications technologies to all the world’s peoples.

The first round of WSIS was held in Geneva in December 2003.

U.S. SEEKS DIVERSITY IN INTERNET GOVERNANCE

In a Washington press briefing October 6, U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy David Gross said the United States is supporting what he called a “bottom-up” form of governance, allowing diverse parties to have a voice in technical regulation of the Internet.

“Governance now is very participatory, involving civil society, private enterprise, academics, technical [groups],” Gross said. He contrasted that approach to the “top down” proposal for governance submitted by a group of European nations.

“We see the European proposal as putting a damper on that extraordinarily participatory approach,” Gross said, “and instead ceding control to some sort of amorphous intergovernmental group made up by countries such as Iran [and] Cuba.”

Gross predicted that the support the European proposal is receiving from nations not known for freedom of expression suggests that such a governing structure would lead to restrictions in content on the Internet.

U.S. officials also balk at the idea of an expanded governmental structure overseeing Internet operations because of the ever-expanding size, access and activity in cyberspace.

PRIVATE SECTOR LEADERSHIP

Existing private sector leadership of the Internet is a “proven success,” according to Michael Gallagher, administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

“Governments are not capable of change at a rapid enough level to meet the demands and the growth that we’ve seen in the Internet,” Gallagher said at the briefing. “But the private sector has answered the call.”

The Internet is expanding at a rocketing rate, with the number of world users increasing from 16 million in 1995 to 888 million in 2005, according to statistics supplied by the U.S. Commerce Department, the NTIA parent agency.

At the same time use increases, so does abuse, officials acknowledge, citing the heightened occurrence of unwanted e-mail, commonly known as "spam" and malicious virus. Such exploitation of the technology arises from the private sector, but so do protections and solutions, Gallagher said.

“Each time a threat has emerged – virus, malicious code – the answer has come from the private sector,” he said. “No government, no bureaucrat has come forward with an answer.”

INTERNET SECURITY, STABILITY

U.S. officials also want to prevent an intergovernmental panel from assuming control of the Internet domain naming system (DNS).

DNS is the system that allows online users to name Web pages and e-mail boxes and allows Internet applications to read and recognize those names so users can reliably navigate online.

This system relies on 13 root servers that are privately operated computers containing the files that list names and numeric Internet protocol addresses of the DNS servers for all top-level domains (TLDs) such as dot-org, dot-com, dot-edu, dot-int and others.

Established by the U.S. Commerce Department in 1998, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) decides what goes in those files.

The U.S. position in the WSIS talks recognizes the interests governments have in managing their country code top-level domains, and expresses commitment to working with governments to address sovereignty concerns and at the same time ensuring DNS stability.

Ensuring security and stability of the Internet in order to further its dynamic growth is a keystone of the U.S. position, and officials say maintaining the current DNS system is important to that goal.

While the governance issues are causing debate now in the WSIS process, Gross said he’s also listening to African delegates who participated in the Geneva talks.

“Their message is, ‘don’t get distracted by this Internet governance that won’t add one more Internet customer to the continent of Africa. Help us focus on implementation, help us focus on growing the Internet.’ That’s what they want,” Gross said.

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