An important battle about who will control the Internet is currently being fought. On the one side is the USA, that wants to keep the status quo and has the support of most of the global Internet community. On the other side is an amalgam of states who want to exercise as much control as possible in order to limit the Internet’s power to undermine their own political regimes. This group comprises Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Cuba, Venezuela and... the European Union.
A few weeks before the UN sponsored World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, the EU is seeking international backing for a proposal to “internationalize” control of the Internet. Currently the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is the body in charge of managing the Internet. The US Department of Commerce has a vetoing power over ICANN’s decisions.
The EU proposal was supported by all countries except the USA at a preparatory conference in Geneva last month, according to EU spokesman Martin Selmayr. It is not that ICANN is not doing a good job but even ICANN has called for internationalization, he added. David Gross, the American ambassador in charge of international communications policy, said:
“It’s a very shocking and profound change of the EU’s position. The EU’s proposal seems to represent an historic shift in the regulatory approach to the Internet from one that is based on private sector leadership to a government, top-down control of the Internet.”
The EU rejects American claims that the EU has changed its policy. The American government, however, has the support of both Republicans and Democrats but also of the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT), an international trade group for the ICT industry. Some European politicians, too, like Carl Bildt are against the EU initiative to internationalize control of the Internet. Bildt was the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Balkans. He was Sweden’s Prime Minister from 1991 to 1994. He is an active member of Friends of Europe, a Brussels-based think-tank for EU policy analysis that favours European integration but is, according to its website, independent of the EU institutions and without national or political bias.
“Keep the Internet free”, Bildt wrote in the International Herald Tribune last Tuesday. He said that:
“It would be profoundly dangerous to now set up an international mechanism, controlled by governments, to take over the running of the Internet. Not only would this play into the hands of regimes bent on limiting the freedom that the Internet can bring, it also risks stifling innovation and ultimately endangering the security of the system.”
Bildt accused the European Commission of
"hav[ing] gone much too far. Its proposal to set up a mechanism that could well turn into a means for limiting access to the Internet has met with fierce fury from Internet professionals worldwide and undiluted enthusiasm from autocratic states. This is not where Europe should be on these issues. The Internet is vital to our future, and we Europeans should be as keen as anyone to preserve the essence of a system that has worked amazingly well. If that entails leaving some ultimate safeguard powers in the hands of the United States, that's certainly better than having theocrats or autocrats around the world getting their hands on the levers of control.”
The decision about the future of the Internet should be taken at the Tunis Summit on 16 to 18 November 2005.