The world doesn't get it - no one 'owns'the Internet

There is something about United Nations summits that makes one lose the will to live. All that fly-blown cant about Declarations of Principles and Plans of Action. All those delegates from countries of which one has never previously heard, unable to believe their luck at getting abroad on expenses and determined to make a speech to justify them.

All those corporate sleazeballs, circling the delegations like flies round dung-heaps, hoping for Heads of Agreement and laying the groundwork for contracts, not to mention the associated kickbacks generally required to do business in parts of the world where dysentery is an occupational hazard.

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) held in Tunis last week was Phase Two of the event held in 2003 in Geneva. Then, 175 countries solemnly approved a 'Declaration of Principles and Plan of Action'. It begins: 'We, the representatives of the peoples of the world, assembled in Geneva from 10-12 December 2003 for the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, declare our common desire and commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilise and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life, premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights....'.

Continued on page 94, as they say.

The Tunisian meeting was supposed to focus on efforts to put the Plan of Action into motion. But it will be remembered mainly for two things: a major row over Internet governance, and Nicholas Negroponte's laptop.

The governance argument was a black comedy of misconceptions and realpolitik. It was widely portrayed in the media as a battle about 'who controls the Internet', but underpinning it were two corrosive misapprehensions - about the role the US government plays in the oversight of the Domain Name System (DNS) and about the nature of the network itself.

The DNS issue arises because, for historical reasons mainly the fact that the US largely financed the development of the Internet - the authoritative databases which match domain names (such as to machine addresses (in The Observer's case have always been maintained by organisations contracted by the US Department of Commerce.

Although these DNS 'Root Servers' are at the heart of the network, to extrapolate from that to the thesis that George Bush 'controls' the Internet is absurd. Given the expansion of the network from its US origins, in an ideal world it might make sense for the Root Zone operators to be overseen by a global authority. But no appropriate such authority yet exists, and the UN - despite its pretensions - is just about the least qualified body in the world for the job.

Why? Basically because many of its most powerful members are top-down control freaks. The governance row was so acrimonious not just because of resentment of America's allegedly dominant role, but also because many regimes throughout the world cannot abide the notion that something as powerful and pervasive as the net should not be controlled.

What these folks do not grasp is that lack of control is the whole point of the net. It was designed from the ground up to be a self-organising, permissive system. A central feature of its architecture is that there would be no 'owner', no gatekeeper. If your network's computers spoke the agreed technical lingo, you could hook up to the net, with no questions asked.

In other words, lack of control is not - as Iran, China and a host of other repressive UN members think - a bug, it's a feature. And it's what has enabled the explosive, disruptive growth that has made it such a transformative force in the world. In these circumstances, entrusting responsibility for the net to an organisation such as the UN would be as irresponsible as giving a clock to a monkey.

The other high point of the week was Professor Negroponte's $100 laptop. For years the MIT professor has nursed the idea that many of the world's problems would be solved if every child could have his or her own laptop. For the past year his team have been beavering away, designing a wind-up machine that would cost no more than a hundred bucks.

On Wednesday, Kofi Annan unveiled the prototype - a small green machine with a yellow crank which looked vaguely like an accessory from a Shrek movie. The apparent absence of any coherent idea of what children would do with a laptop was worrying, but overall it's a terrific, bold idea, and I wish it well, not just because it promises to commoditise laptop technology, but also because it runs on Linux. Could this be the first time in history that something useful has emerged from WSIS?

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