Saturday, October 01, 2005

EU and U.S. clash over control of Net

GENEVA The United States and Europe clashed here Thursday in one of their sharpest public disagreements in months, after European Union negotiators proposed stripping the Americans of their effective control of the Internet.

The European decision to back the rest of the world in demanding the creation of a new international body to govern the Internet clearly caught the Americans off balance and left them largely isolated at talks designed to come up with a new way of regulating the digital traffic of the 21st century.

"It's a very shocking and profound change of the EU's position," said David Gross, the State Department official in charge of America's international communications policy. "The EU's proposal seems to represent an historic shift in the regulatory approach to the Internet from one that is based on private sector leadership to a government, top-down control of the Internet."

Delegates meeting in Geneva for the past two weeks had been hoping to reach consensus for a draft document by Friday after two years of debate. The talks on international digital issues, called the World Summit on the Information Society and organized by the United Nations, were scheduled to conclude in November at a meeting in Tunisia. Instead, the talks have deadlocked, with the United States fighting a solitary battle against countries that want to see a global body take over supervision of the Internet.

The United States lost its only ally late Wednesday when the EU made a surprise proposal to create an intergovernmental body that would set principles for running the Internet. Currently, the U.S. Commerce Department approves changes to the Internet's "root zone files," which are administered by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or Icann, a nonprofit organization based in Marina del Rey, California.

Political unease with the U.S. approach, symbolized by opposition to the war in Iraq, has spilled over into these technical discussions, delegates said. The EU and developing nations, they added, wanted to send a signal to America that it could not run things alone. Opposition to Washington's continued dominance of the Internet was illustrated by a statement released last week by the Brazilian delegation to the talks. "On Internet governance, three words tend to come to mind: lack of legitimacy. In our digital world, only one nation decides for all of us."

In its new proposal, the EU said the new body could set guidelines on who gets control of what Internet address - the main mechanism for finding information across the global network - and could play a role in helping to set up a system for resolving disputes.

"The role of governments in the new cooperation model should be mainly focused on principle issues of public policy, excluding any involvement in the day-to-day operations," the proposal said. The new model "should not replace existing mechanisms or institutions," it added. The proposal was vague but left open the possibility, fiercely opposed by Washington, that the United Nations itself could have some future governing role.

The United States has sharply criticized demands, like one made last week by Iran, for a UN body to govern the Internet, Gross said. "No intergovernmental body should control the Internet," he said, "whether it's the UN or any other." U.S. officials argue that a system like the one proposed by the EU would lead to unwanted bureaucratization of the Internet.

"I think the U.S. is overreacting," said David Hendon, a spokesman for the EU delegation.

"But I think it's a tactical overreaction for the negotiations," he added.

"We expected this proposal to move the summit along from the stalemate," Hendon said. "It is unreasonable to leave in the hands of the U.S. the power to decide what happens with the Internet in other countries."

Various groups, including the International Telecommunication Union, a UN agency based in Geneva, have suggested that the U.S. government has too much control over the Internet.

Under the terms of a 1998 memorandum of understanding, Icann was to gain its independence from the Commerce Department by September 2006.

But the Bush administration said in July that the United States would "maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file." In so doing, the government "intends to preserve the security and stability" of the technical underpinnings of the Internet.

Without consensus, some experts say that countries might move ahead with setting up their own domain name system, or DNS, as a way of bypassing Icann.
The United States argues that a single addressing system is what makes the Internet so powerful, and moves to set up multiple Internets would be in no one's interest.

"It's not just working," said Michael Gallagher, an assistant secretary at the Commerce Department who heads communication policy. "It's working spectacularly." Paul Twomey, chief executive of Icann, said fears of U.S. government influence on the Internet were overstated.

Delegates say the conference has made much better progress on issues like dealing with spam e-mail messages and identity theft since it began in 2003. But they said they did not expect to be able to complete a document on Friday, as had been planned, and that further talks would be needed before the Tunisia meeting Nov. 16 to 18.


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