Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/09/28/wsis_geneva/

WSIS: Who gets to run the internet?

United Nations conference ponders net future

By Kieren McCarthy

Posted in Financial News, 28th September 2005 07:31 GMT

The question over who will be granted overall control of the internet from next year is proving the most controversial part of a worldwide conference being held in Geneva as we speak.

The United States, which currently has overall control of the internet, is refusing to allow other governments to take the lead role, arguing instead that companies, organisations and individuals made the Internet what it is today and they should continue to have the biggest say.

On the other side, Iran and Brazil are determined that the world's governments - and not just the US - are the ones who get to decide what is done. They favour pulling ICANN, the existing body charged with overseeing the internet, into the United Nations.

According to the US, this would stifle the flexibility and energy that the internet feeds off. Iran and Brazil point out that it is the United States and its companies that have the most to lose by having their system pulled away from them.

The argument is proving a major stumbling block at the conference, with half the time and an increasing number of resources being dedicated to this question alone. Despite this, we are seven days through the ten-day conference with significant disagreement remaining.

Pakistan Ambassador Masood Khan, the chairman of the committee charged with the issue, says this is "the most difficult question" of all. But, despite that, and in the face of ongoing disputes, he is quietly confident. Is agreement likely by the end of the conference on Friday? "I think so," he told us. "We have positions that are very rigid on both sides, but I think that they have also signalled that they would be able to find common ground."

The two most controversial figures so far have been the United States and China. US Ambassador David Gross has been forthright, telling a meeting just prior to the conference that as far as he was concerned: "The United Nations will not be in charge of the internet. Period."

He reiterated the same line to us when we asked him about it as the conference itself. "The UN ought not to be running the internet - that is a very firm position we have."

Unsurprisingly, this has ruffled a few feathers, especially considering the fact everyone is sat at a UN meeting in Geneva discussing this very topic.

But Ambassador Khan shrugged off such ill-will and said the US stance had actually helped matters. "The US has taken a very clear position and has enunciated it and reiterated it both inside and outside the conference - and that has helped the process because now everybody understands what the US position is."

Besides, he told us, he's not so sure that there are many countries that actually want the UN running the internet. Right now, "the situation is fluid".

The situation *is* fluid. After much to-ing and fro-ing, we have two basic positions. One put forward by the UK (also acting as representative of the EU) calls for the creation of a forum that works with the existing Internet organisations but not in an oversight role.

The alternative model, put forward by Brazil and Iran sees a UN body (with governments deciding matters) pulling in and effectively taking over internet control, including identifying where the Internet should be going.

The world's governments (and the other various organisations invited) have split into three factions. Pro-UK, pro-Brazil and sitting on the fence. The splits are fairly consistent. The US, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia and Japan are with the UK/EU. Whereas China, Cuba and parts of Africa and South America are with Iran/Brazil.

Europe, Australasia and Central/North America versus Africa, South America and Asia. Except the splits are forming on the Iran/Brazil side. Not all of Africa is convinced, nor is all of Asia. Some in South America are also playing a watching game.

Most significantly, China, despite a damning speech early on by its Ambassador, Sha Zukang, in which he said the current situation was "very undemocratic, unfair and unreasonable", has been oddly silent and relaxed. It is possible, as one expert observer told me, that China "reckons it can deals with things its end by itself". If China signs up to a government-led approach, it can also be prevented from doing as it wants. With a looser model, it has greater leeway for running the internet how it sees fit within its borders.

But as Ambassador Gross stressed, this whole conference "is not just an academic exercise". The US is currying favour by consistently offering to hold open discussions and hinting that it will grant countries autonomy. And with the EU so far solid, it looks as though the Iran/Brazil position may crack first and the both longer-for and feared clean-sweep of the internet’s overseeing bodies be discarded in favour of the "evolution" stance.

Gross isn't too concerned about the rapidly shortening time left for agreement, arguing that at an earlier conference (the first of the three) "we didn't reach agreement until the night before".

Khan is also realistic about progress: "I think we shall have some text by the time we reach Tunis [the World Summit]. But there will be some text in brackets. Which means that we have agreement in some parts of Internet governance and continuing disagreement over some other parts - particularly about the forum or about future mechanisms."

How many parts and how big that disagreement will be decided in the next three days. ®

Kieren McCarthy has recorded his interviews with some of the key protagonists, broadcast in this radio report.