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[] Asia Times 13.10.05: US grip on the Internet challenged

US grip on the Internet challenged

By Seema Sirohi

ROME - A high-stakes battle is raging over who should control the Internet, the world's most powerful communication tool that has arguably become an important vehicle of globalization.

Not the Americans, is the message from the rest of the world. Last week, high-level talks in Geneva failed to resolve the dispute as the European Union broke ranks with the US government and joined Brazil, China and Iran in demanding an end to America's supervision of the Internet.

While many countries demand nothing less than "regime change", others say the United States should practice what it preaches and instill some democracy in the abstruse governance of the Internet.

If another round of meetings fails to break the deadlock, the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis next month will be dead on arrival. The summit was to pronounce on the future of the Internet, but the row is likely to overshadow other crucial issues such as bringing more people online and fighting spam e-mails. In the absence of a peaceful compromise, the biggest losers will be an estimated 1 billion people who use the Internet.

In the worst case scenario, dubbed by cyber pundits as the "nuclear option", the Internet could fracture into multiple networks that may be incompatible with each other. It would be nothing less than Balkanization of the virtual world - a web meltdown where two computers might find different websites at the same numerical address.

Brazil, Iran, Cuba and China want the creation of a new international body to govern the Internet, either through the United Nations or an independent organization. The Americans, deeply allergic to even the smell of the United Nations, vehemently oppose handing over this powerful tool to a bunch of bickering bureaucrats, many of whom will surely rise from countries on Washington's blacklist.

Incidentally, Iran - currently the cause of American ulcers - was active in Geneva opposing the domination of any "single government" in running the Internet. Brazil was equally vehement in its statement when it said bluntly: "On Internet governance, three words come to mind: lack of legitimacy. In our digital world, only one nation decides for all of us."

The European Union, traditionally America's ally in all things important, decided even it couldn't live with US monopoly for all time and joined other nations in calling for a larger inter-governmental body to oversee the Internet.

But the US government appears equally determined to maintain its hold. Both the executive and legislative branches of the government are united in their aim to keep the reins firmly in Washington's hands.

Joe Barton, chairman of the Energy and Commerce committee in the US House of Representatives, wrote to the chief US negotiator, David Gross, saying that the US must continue its "historic role" in governing the Internet and exercise "strong oversight".

Given such a mandate, it was no surprise that Gross said in Geneva, "What we are not interested in ... is the establishment of a new international institution to regulate the Internet." The uncompromising American stance made a compromise difficult, which in turn led to the EU abandoning the US camp.

Viviane Reding, the EU commissioner for cyber matters, said the Americans were "absolutely isolated and that is dangerous". Anticipating a nasty virtual war, she asked to imagine the unimaginable - the Brazilians or the Chinese creating their own Internet. "That would be the end of the story."

Indeed. Control rather than free flow of information would be the rule of the day, warn experts. Carl Bildt, former prime minister of Sweden, wrote: "It would be profoundly dangerous to now set up an international mechanism, controlled by governments, to take over the running of the Internet. Not only would this play into the hands of regimes bent on limiting the freedom that the Internet can bring, it also risks stifling innovation."

So how does the United States control the Internet? The US Commerce Department effectively supervises Internet traffic because it approves changes to the Internet's "root zone files" or master directories. In other words, the US government has veto power and can theoretically deny access.

The Americans justify their control because the Internet was created thanks to a Pentagon project. Funded by the US Defense Department, the project was designed to create links among computer networks. But for the system to function, a master list was needed to direct data to the correct destination.

To manage the master files, the Commerce Department founded the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers or ICANN. The California-based organization administers master directories, which instruct web browsers and e-mail programs on how to direct traffic.

ICANN, which was created on a contract by the US Commerce Department, was to gain independence in 2006 but President George W Bush said in July that the US would "maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications" to the master lists to "preserve security and stability".

Bush's statement raised hell in various capitals around the world where the Internet is as feared as it is admired for its vast ability to stream through to the individual and past the police check posts. But many countries also fear that the US can arbitrarily deny requests for changes in the files depending on who's out of favor with Washington. So far, that hasn't happened but diplomats don't want to leave such a possibility for the future.

There is no doubt that geopolitics forms the backdrop to the battle for control. The EU, Brazil, Russia and China have had enough of the American "unilateral approach" to world affairs since the Iraq war. They want to send a signal that the US can't dominate the digital world.

As for developing countries, they are already angry with the US and Europe for gobbling up most of the available addresses needed for computers to connect, leaving only a few for the rest of the world to share.

The Americans, for their part, don't want to lose control of this powerful tool to countries such as China that are fast emerging as potential rivals for superpower status. Already on the defensive by a fast-rising China, the Americans would like to put some brakes on the dragon.

The Americans are also deeply concerned about terrorists using the Internet. With multiple masters, the Internet would be easier to abuse because it would be more difficult to monitor.

But the Americans seem to be alone in their stand. The Europeans are trying to craft a compromise that would create an international forum where other countries can discuss their concerns while ICANN would continue to be the technical administrator.

While the bellicose Bush administration may not the best example for civil liberties, communist China, a theocratic Iran or a fundamentalist Saudi Arabia might be worse for deciding the fate of a free Internet, say analysts.

Seema Sirohi is a Rome-based correspondent