After months of rhetoric, noise and backroom lobbying over an international body assuming oversight of the Internet domain naming system from the U.S., the debate ended with an anti-climactic 11th hour agreement.
The U.N. agreed Tuesday to leave the role of Internet governance in the hands of the United States.
"We recognize that the existing arrangements for Internet governance have worked effectively to make the Internet the highly robust, dynamic and geographically diverse medium that it is today, with the private sector taking the lead in day-to-day operations, and with innovation and value creation at the edges," the opening paragraph of the agreement reads.
Instead, U.N. involvement in the future will reside in an Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to discuss public policy issues and provide a way to accelerate Internet adoption around the world. The forum will emphasize participation from local, regional and national governments, businesses, civil society and inter-governmental organizations.
The U.N. has been working through the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) to address the concerns of some countries over the United States' continued control of the Internet through the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
The IGF, as it stands today, won't have any oversight function or involvement in the day-to-day operations of Internet governance already provided by ICANN. The first meeting of the IGF is expected to take place in the second quarter next year in Athens, Greece.
The agreement essentially means business as usual for ICANN, the U.S. Department of Commerce subcontractor located in California, which has been managing the direction of the Internet and its policies since its founding.
"The idea that the DNS continues to have oversight by ICANN with no additional oversight shouldn't surprise anyone," said Bret Fausett, a member of ICANN's At-Large Advisory Committee and author of the Lextext blog on Internet domain issues. "That's what the Bush administration said was going to happen and the Bush administration had unilateral control over what happened to the DNS."
He also isn't surprised that a forum was created as part of the agreement, though the broad wording of the makeup and purpose of the agreement leaves room for a lot of interpretation.
Fausett expects to see a lot of jostling for position and power as the forum's members flesh out what the terms of the agreement actually mean and whether the IGF can eventually evolve into some type of oversight committee.
"The question is they certainly won't have that authority now but do some people see this new forum, this quasi-governmental body, evolving into an oversight role?" he said. "I think some people backing the forum still have aspirations towards oversight of the DNS."
For Rep. John Doolittle of California's 4th District, there isn't much question. Whether the U.N. calls it a board or a forum, it's clear the ultimate goal of the body is to wrest control of the Internet.
"The United States invented the Internet and it has been our gift to the world, paid for by our taxpayers," he said in a statement Wednesday. "The U.N.'s desire to take that gift as a means of increasing its power must be stopped.
"If the U.N. were to be successful in its efforts to control the Internet, countries where human rights records range from questionable to criminal could be put in charge of determining what is and is not allowed to appear online," he continued. "For example, we need only look back to 2003 when the U.N. decided that Libya, a country frequently condemned by human rights groups, was the U.N.'s choice to head its Human Rights Commission."
A "Sense of the Congress" resolution by Doolittle, originally reported as occurring Tuesday, had yet to be held as of presstime. The resolution was intended as a message that the U.S. intends to retain control of the Internet.
Outside the U.S., many Europeans were reluctant to shift Internet management into the hands of the U.N. if only because there is no viable alternative to ICANN, said Thomas Hays, an IP consultant with London-based legal firm Lewis Silkin.
While Europeans may distrust the U.S. over its handling of the Iraq war and other issues, he said, they also have reservations against the U.N. and its handling of the Oil-for-Food scandal. In the light of that, the United States handling of the Internet so far tips the balance.
"You can always rely on the U.S. to do what is economically in its best interest and by extension -- if you're a free market economy and you're trying to compete in that internationally -- in your best interests," he said. "You can rely on the U.S. for that, you can't rely on the United Nations for it."
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