United Nations Weighs U.S. Control of Internet Naming

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A U.N. meeting begins in Tunis Wednesday on whether the United States should continue to administer the Internet. Other countries are challenging U.S. control of the Domain Name System, which translates Internet names into numbers that computers understand.


The United States faces a kind of uprising over its control of the technical systems that run the Internet. That uprising may come to a head at the UN World Summit on the Information Society which begins tomorrow in Tunis. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.


While many men had claimed to be the inventors of the Internet, Mike Gallagher says only one country deserves that distinction.

Mr. MIKE GALLAGHER (National Telecommunications and Information Administration): The Internet is a US invention, a US creation, and we gave it to the world.

ABRAMSON: Gallagher is an assistant secretary at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the Commerce Department, and his agency has ultimate control over the DNS, the Domain Name System. That's what translates Internet names like into the numbers that computers understand. Gallagher is worried about a movement in Europe and many nations around the world to take away or internationalize that role.

Mr. GALLAGHER: The countries that are seeking to impose the bureaucracy on the Internet are Syria, Iran, Cuba, Brazil, China--countries that have very different views of freedom of expression and freedom for their citizens than the United States.

ABRAMSON: In truth, Gallagher says, the US almost never interferes with the real administrator of the address system, a California non-profit known as ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. But many other countries feel US firms do have an unfair advantage when bidding for technical tasks, like registering names and addresses, and they just don't like the idea that the US could, for example, delete the domain name used by a particular country. Anthony Gooch of the European Union says as the Internet grows up, it should evolve into a truly international community.

Mr. ANTHONY GOOCH (European Union): The next logical step would be for a complete privatization process of the day-to-day management of the Net by phasing out the oversight functions that the US Department of Commerce still retains over ICANN.

ABRAMSON: Some countries, like Brazil, Iran and Russia, have gone further and said that no single government should have a pre-eminent role in governance of the Internet. They've come up with four alternative proposals. One would replace the US with an international Internet council. The prospect of replacing US oversight with a global bureaucracy has horrified some members of Congress. Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota has warned that Tunis could become a digital Munich, a capitulation to governments with less-than-stellar human rights records.

Senator NORM COLEMAN (Republican, Minnesota): If it ain't broke, don't fix it. It's not broke, and clearly the idea that has been promoted by the Iranians and by the Saudi Arabians and others is one that we should be very, very aware of, we should certainly have great concern about.

ABRAMSON: What's unclear is whether all this bluster will ever change the way the Net works for users. Professor Hans Klein of the Georgia Institute of Technology says there is a chance that it could.

Professor HANS KLEIN (Georgia Institute of Technology): If the US says, `We will not compromise on our stand, the DNS remains under US control,' and simultaneously the Europeans say, `That is an unacceptable outcome for us,' it would quickly shift energies away from further political negotiations and it would shift energies towards technology redesign.

ABRAMSON: That could mean creating a second or third addressing system for other parts of the world. Those systems would probably be identical to the US naming system, but they could chart their own course and, for example, hand out addresses to countries that the US decided not to recognize. The other question, though, is whether these tensions over Internet governance will imperil international cooperation on issues that truly irritate users and governments alike, like spam, spyware and identity theft. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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