Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/09/30/eu_deal_wsis/

EU deal threatens end to US dominance of internet

Last-minute talks at PrepCom3

By Kieren McCarthy

Posted in Media, 30th September 2005 08:12 GMT

Check out Kieren's radio report on Prepcom 3

A dramatic last-minute deal drawn up by the EU may mark the end of the US government's control of the internet.

The UK, acting as European representative, stunned delegates from around the world during a late-night session on Wednesday when it produced a series of paragraphs that effectively outlined the end of the US-created internet infrastructure.

It called for a "new co-operation model" that would not only oversee public policy matters but also create procedures for changing the internet's "root zone file", managers of country domains (such as .uk or .de), create a new arbitration service for the internet, and produce rules to cover the domain name system (DNS).

In essence, a new version of the current overseeing body ICANN and an end to the US government's overall control of the DNS.

The US was scathing about the proposals, within minutes telling delegates that it "can't in any way allow any changes" that would prevent it from having overall control of the internet.

The next day, the US ambassador David Gross remained equally unimpressed. "It seems to me to be a potentially historic shift in policy by the European Union - to be a much more top-down, 'governments should control technical aspects of the Internet' approach," he told us. "Something that as you know is not the policy of the United States."

Likeminded group

But the proposal is there and the UK explained it was intended to help parties from both ends of the spectrum reach agreement. Even so, that aim looked shaky until a second surprise move when Thursday's late-night meeting was adjourned early for the EU to review bridging proposals provided by Brazil which opened the way for a worldwide consensus.

Brazil, along with Iran, Cuba, China and others has created an impromptu "Likeminded Group" at the PrepCom3 meeting in Geneva that has continually insisted on the removal of US control.

Brazil's ambassador, Antonio Porto, outlined his perspective to us: "It is not a question of being anti-ICANN, it's about having a very clear and open and democratic and inclusive mechanism of overview of certain functions that today are performed by ICANN with no kind of supervision."

The UN's special adviser for internet governance, Nitin Desai, told us that the issue of control was particularly stark for developing nations, where the internet is not so much an entertainment or e-commerce medium but a vital part of the country's infrastructure.

Ambassador Porto clarified that point further: "Nowadays our voting system in Brazil is based on ICTs [information and communication technologies], our tax collection system is based on ICTs, our public health system is based on ICTs. For us, the internet is much more than entertainment, it is vital for our constituencies, for our parliament in Brazil, for our society in Brazil." With such a vital resource, he asked, "how can one country control the Internet?"

With only a day left in the conference, enormous pressure has been put on delegates to come to agreement. The US however has refused to budge from its position dating back to July where it said it would "maintain its historic role" overseeing the DNS.

Despite suggestions of concessions, and the promise of talks, the US has not put anything on the table and one analyst told us that people had simply grown sick of the unfulfilled promises.

There must be change

As even the Chinese delegate Yang Xiaokun explained to us: "You cannot come to a meeting like this saying something is non-negotiable. You must show flexibility and compromise." Asked whether there were any unbreakable rules for the Chinese at the conference, he gave only one: "There must be change." That same message has been reiterated time and again in the past 11 days in Geneva.

And so it was the EU that finally broke ranks and spent Wednesday night and all Thursday in meetings with other governments trying to cut a deal. Brazil said these had "brought us closer together"; China agreed that the meeting had gone well. Iran said there were some very positive moves. The UK representative David Hendon consistently promised to give us a few words but was promptly pulled off again to another meeting.

And so with the UK having to return to all 25 EU member states to go through the Likeminded Group's proposals, and then return to discuss changes, it will be a late night for many delegates.

Plus, of course, the deal may still fall through. Mr Hendon made it clear that the Brazilian requests went "substantially beyond what I am authorised to negotiate".

Even with agreement however, the head of ICANN denied it would see the existing internet overseeing corporation replaced. The deal was simply a way for governments to seize more control of the overseeing body, Paul Twomey told us, something that he warned would lead the way for greater politicalisation of a technical function.

Nevertheless with just one day remaining, the pressure to seal a deal is intense, and it looks increasingly likely that by 5pm Swiss time on Friday 30th September 2005, the Unites States will be negotiated out of control of the internet. ®