The US and Europe are headed for a showdown at a worldwide Internet summit in Tunisia this week. At issue: control over the Internet.
The power to shut off an entire country
A nonprofit, government-funded organization located in sunny Marina del Rey, California is the root of a brewing conflict between the United States and Europe.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), has close ties to the US Department of Commerce and is responsible for assigning domain names and internet suffixes - like ".com", and ".org." The functions give ICANN far too much control over the World Wide Web, say critics from China, to Brazil to, recently, the European Union.
ICANN has close ties to the Commerce Department
"The 25 EU countries are unanimously demanding a new cooperation model for the Internet, where all interested countries sit at one table to discuss the core questions of the network together," EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media Viviane Reding told the magazine Der Spiegel this week.
The power to shut off a cou n try
On Wednesday, the EU will present its proposal at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, Tunisia. The three-day conference has in the past few years tackled issues like SPAM e-mails and cyber-terrorism. This year, the conflict between the US and the rest of the world on so-called "Internet governance" will likely take center stage.
"We ask the EU to reconsider its new position on Internet governance and work together with us to bring the benefits of the information society to all," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez wrote in a letter to the EU seen by the AFP wire agency.
Only one of the root servers that direct traffic and serve as the Internet's master directories is located outside the US -- in Tokyo, Japan
Twelve of the 13 root servers that make the Internet run are located in the United States. Though ICANN is a private organization with international board members, the Commerce Department can still veto what goes on government -approved lists of the 260 or so internet suffixes, like ".com." Theoretically, the US could simply disconnect the domains of countries, like Iran or North Korea, with which they are feuding.
America i n sists o n co n trol
The US says its historic role in the development and expansion of the World Wide Web gives it the right to maintain such control. Washington also cites growing security threats and the increasing use of the Internet in global communications and commerce as reasons for the country to retain control. EU officials, meanwhile, are perplexed at why the Department of Commerce which originally planned to withdraw from ICANN in 2006, this summer decided to reverse its decision.
"Now the US is declaring, on short notice and unilaterally, that they insist on retaining their historic role in the political control of the net," Reding said.
The EU is proposing a formula that would replace US government oversight with a purely technical intergovernmental body -- though not necessarily the UN -- after a transition phase.
Feari n g bureaucracy
Such a body stokes fears of the kind of stifling bureaucracy the United States regularly criticizes the EU of. Rice and Gutierrez's letter says that the "burdensome, bureaucratic oversight is out of place in an Internet structure that has worked so well for so many around the globe."
The danger of a fractured Internet: Two users typing in the same Web address reach different sites
Some fear the worst should the two sides not reach some sort of agreement. Countries refusing to accept US Internet governance could set up their own domain name system, creating parallel worlds on the Internet. Users typing in the same Web address, for example, could reach two different sites.
The real loss?
"Since the positions are so polarized we may end up with a fractured Internet," said Robert Shaw of the UN international Telecommunication Union, the preference of some countries to takeover oversight.
Only 14 percent of the rest of the world is online
Others fear the conflict has already created a worst case scenario of some sorts. The summit this week in Tunis was supposed to tackle the Internet divide between rich and poor nations. Only 14 percent of the world's population has access to the Internet compared to 62 percent in the US. The subject will most likely get pushed into the background by the struggle over Internet control, say observers.