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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 October 2006, 08:53 GMT 09:53 UK
Warning over 'broken up' internet
By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News website

China net users
China has one of the biggest online populations
The internet could one day be broken up into separate networks around the world, a leading light in the development of the net has warned.

Nitin Desai, chair of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), set up by the UN, warned that concerns over the net's future could lead to separation.

"People are concerned about whether the system we have now will also work five years from now," he said.

Mr Desai was speaking at a conference in London to discuss the net.

The conference was organised by Nominet, the UK body in charge of domain names ending .uk, ahead of the first-ever Internet Governance Forum, a global gathering of stakeholders in Athens later this month.

If we don't address it with sufficient vigour we will get a Balkanisation of the net
Nitin Desai

Mr Desai said there were tensions about the future regulation of the net and over specific issues such as international domain names.

"There are concerns over regulation as the internet, telephony and commerce come together," he said.

"If I look at the internet in five years from now there are going to be very, very, very more internet users in Asia than Europe or America.

"There will be more Chinese web pages than English pages.

Computer user
The IGF conference in Athens will debate the future net

"The types of uses for the internet in India and China are very different from western countries - they are not commerce or media; they are essentially public service applications."

The internet was increasingly being shaped by companies and organisations at the "edges" and not by government, public sector bodies and regulators, he said.

This was concerning some countries who wanted more involvement in the development of the net.

"These are the reasons these entities - government and private sector - feel they need to be reassured that the system they are relying on is secure, safe and reliable - that they cannot be suddenly thrown out of that system by some attack," said Mr Desai.

He said the Chinese government was concerned that users still had to type webpage addresses using Latin characters even when the pages were in Chinese.

"A large proportion of the internet users in China do not know the Latin alphabet.

Why would the technology we have at the moment be the ubiquitous technology across the world in the future?
Howard Williams, World Bank

"There are concerns about internationalised domain names in some countries who feel the debate is not moving fast enough."

He warned: "I think this is one of the key issues and if we don't address it with sufficient vigour we will get a Balkanisation of the net."

"There's a point at which the Chinese will say 'We have to have domain names in Chinese characters' and they will set up an independent system."

Other speakers at the conference felt that in some ways a "Balkanised" internet was inevitable.

Professor Howard Williams, who works with the World Bank, said the debate around future regulation of the web rested on the assumption there would be a single web in the future.

'Net neutrality'

"Why would the technology we have at the moment be the ubiquitous technology across the world in the future?"

Prof Williams said Balkanisation was "happening already".

"In the US the issue of net neutrality raises the prospect of a different sort of web," he said.

Earlier this year a US Senate committee approved a bill which lets internet service provides provide some customers with preferential services such as bandwidth and speed.

"Net neutrality" campaigners attacked the plan, saying there should be equal access for all web users.

Chinyelu Onwurah of UK super regulator Ofcom said the impact of Balkanisation would depend on the effect it had on consumer choice.

She said: "If Balkanisation refers to islands of connectivity that have no inter-connectivity between them then clearly that is a bad thing and limits the choice and reach for consumers.

"But if it refers to differentiation and different levels of protection, of functionality and speed, and relates to choice, then that is a positive thing."

The IGF has no membership, it's an open door, a town hall, all views are welcome
Nitin Desai

David Harrington, of business group the Communications Management Association, said cultural differences would "inevitably Balkanise the net".

"That's been the case since the net was available commercially; it's a matter of degrees," he said.

Mr Desai said the IGF would be the opportunity to discuss many of these issues.

But he reminded delegates at the London conference that the IGF was not a "decision-making body".

He said: "No-one wants to duplicate a telecoms-type regulator on the internet. It's a multi-stakeholder exercise.

"For this reason the IGF has been created. The forum has no membership, it's an open door, a town hall, all views are welcome.

"But it's not a decision-making body. We have no members so we have no power to make decision."

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