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US wins net governance battle

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The United States has won its fight to retain control over the internet, at least for the foreseeable future.

The world's governments in Tunisia finally reached agreement at 10.30pm last night, just hours before the official opening of the World Summit this morning. In the end, with absolutely no time remaining, a deal was cut.

That deal will see the creation of a new Internet Governance Forum, that will be set up next year and decide upon public policy issues for the internet. It will be made up of governments as well as private and civil society, but it will not have power over existing bodies.

Equally, there will be no new oversight body for ICANN, or no new ICANN come to that. Instead, all governments have agreed to work within existing organisations. Effectively that will mean within the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) of ICANN. Note the word "advisory" because, again, the GAC has no powers of control over ICANN.

However, head of ICANN Paul Twomey promised delegates that ICANN was happy for the GAC to recreate itself as it saw fit. Twomey later pointed out to us that although the ICANN Board has to approve any GAC decision, there has yet to be an occasion when it hasn't gone along with it. A special meeting of the GAC will be convened at ICANN's conference in Vancouver in a fortnight's time.

The deal represents a remarkable victory for the United States and ICANN : only a month ago they were put on the back foot by an EU proposal that turned the world's governments against the US position.

But following an intense US lobbying effort across the board, the Americans have got their way. Countless press articles, each as inaccurate as the last, formed a huge public sense of what was happening with internet governance that proved impossible to shake.

Massive IT companies - again, mostly US and thanks to intense US government lobbying - came out publicly in favour of the status quo. And the EU representative, David Hendon, confirmed to us last night that in political and governments circles - at every level - the US had pushed home its points again and again.

A letter from US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice sent to the EU just prior to the Summit also had a big impact. Hendon said the UK's position was pretty much set by then, but that it may well have had an impact on other EU members. The exact wording of the letter has yet to come out but it is said to be pretty strong stuff.

And so without the EU forcing the middle ground, and with the US backed by Australia, the brokering - pushed in no short measure by chairman Massod Khan - was led by Singapore and Ghana. The result was that Brazil, China, Iran, Russia and numerous other countries were stymied.

Because of the extremely short timetable, the only deal possible was consensus. And every radical proposal was simply shot down. Today will see a jubilant US ambassador David Gross, a resigned EU (and one that may well learn some lobbying lessons in future) and a depressed Brazil.

Everyone of course claims victory but the reality is that the US has won out by shouting loudest. Expect to read numerous press articles that claim the United States has saved the Internet from a fate worse than death. That was never true, and there were never any good real reasons why the US should not cede some control to an international formation of governments. But reality and politics have never been good bed-fellows.

The shift to an international body will still happen but it will now be at least five years down the line.

The plus point of all this great theatre however is that the world, and its governments, are now infinitely more aware of how this internet thing really works. ®

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