Saturday, November 17, 2007

At U.N. forum, U.S. control over Net is the No. 1 topic


RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- U.S. control over how Internet addresses are assigned -- and thus how people around the world get access to e-mail and Web sites -- dominated discussions as a major U.N. conference on the Internet opened here Monday.

Although few participants at the Internet Governance Forum attacked the United States directly, most were well aware of the role Americans play over domain name policies, including whether and how to assign suffixes in languages besides English.

"The Internet is transnational. It can't be under the authority of one country or even some countries," said Brazil's culture minister, Gilberto Gil, setting the conference's tone at the opening ceremony. "The Internet should be the territory of everyone."

At issue is control over domain names, the monikers after the "dot" such as "com" and "org" that are crucial for computers to find Web sites and route e-mail. By controlling the core systems, the U.S. indirectly influences much of the Internet.

The U.S. government, which funded much of the Internet's early development, delegated policies over domain names to a Marina del Rey, Calif.-based non-profit, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, over which the United States retains veto power.

Many critics fear opening ICANN up to an organization such as the United Nations could allow governments to politicize the Internet and more easily impose censorship.

Paul Twomey, ICANN's president and chief executive, said his organization was effectively "international," with only three of its 15 board members coming from the United States. The newly elected chairman is from New Zealand, and Twomey is from Australia.

Twomey said he believed the debate over U.S. control was being fueled by "high politics."

"The discussion of the role of ICANN has gone on for some time, but there is no consensus for change," Twomey said, adding he believed the discussion distracted from more important issues.