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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 November 2005, 13:00 GMT
Analysis: More talk on net's future
By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent in Tunis

Kofi Annan in Tunis
Kofi Annan praised American oversight of the internet
After two years of sometimes acrimonious global debate, representatives from more than 100 nations finally came to an agreement on the future of internet governance late on Tuesday night in Tunis.

As the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society officially started, all sides involved in the debate were claiming victory.

Under the compromise proposal, the US, working through the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), will retain control of many of the technical functions of the internet.

Countries who wanted a bigger say in how the internet is run will get an Internet Governance Forum that will discuss net related issues such as spam and cyber security.

But, crucially, they will not have any oversight over the day to day functioning of the internet.

Opposing sides

Tunis had threatened to quickly become ground zero in the battle over internet governance. In fact, keen watchers of US foreign policy in other areas may have detected a familiar pattern in the run-up to the Tunis Summit.

It's a very bright future ahead. Freedom rings for the internet
Michael Gallagher, US Assistant Secretary of Commerce
On the one side, you had the US. Americans officials had strongly reiterated that it would not give up control over the net's technical functions, including the domain name addressing system.

They argued that the internet grew out of US military and academic research, and that the US government had both the responsibility, and the ability, to keep the internet open, stable and secure.

On the other side, you had nations making the case that the relationship between Icann and the US Department of Commerce essentially amounted to American control of what has become a truly global communications and economic resource.

The time had come, they argued, to internationalise the discussion surrounding the net.

The agreement reached on internet governance here in Tunis amounts to this: the two sides decided that they need to keep talking about it.

In essence it means business as usual for the millions of people who use the net in their everyday lives.

'Win-win'

In his opening speech at the summit, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan pledged that the United Nations would fully support the Internet Governance Forum.

Delegates arrive at WSIS
Thousands are taking part in the UN summit
"The United States deserves our thanks, for having developed the internet and making it available to the world," said Mr. Annan. "It has exercised its oversight responsibilities fairly and honourably."

"I believe you all agree that day-to-day management of the internet must be left to technical institutions, not least to shield it from the heat of day-to-day politics.

"But I think you'll also acknowledge the need for more international participation in discussion of internet governance issues. Let the discussions continue."

For their part, US officials have applauded the idea of the Internet Governance Forum. Michael Gallagher, US Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, called it a "win-win" outcome.

Leaving the technical control of the net in the hands of the US and Icann, he said, meant that the advantages of information technology could spread more readily to the developing world.

"It's a very bright future ahead," said Mr Gallagher. "Freedom rings for the internet."

But the person heading the body that has fielded much of the criticism, Paul Twomey, president and CEO of Icann, sounded a note of caution.

He said he did not expect the fundamental battle over internet governance to go away anytime soon.

"What we've been facing is, in some respects, a real battle of ideas," Mr Twomey said. "The internet represents sort of a new idea of how you actually coordinate a technical function around the world, and to a degree the way you coordinate the social and economic activity that takes place on top of it."

He warned against any attempt to apply 19th century top-down governance models to what is essentially a 21st century, bottom-up technology.

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production


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