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This week, we've been looking at the newest arena of international conflict: cyberspace. The Internet, having brought the world together, is fast becoming a place where countries compete in a largely unregulated and un-policed World Wide Web. We're in age of cyber-espionage and global rivalries and preparations for cyber war. We could soon see a battle over who controls the Internet. NPR's Tom Gjelten has been reporting on this. And Tom, where the battlefield?

TOM GJELTEN: Well Steve, you know what? I actually found a place in northern Virginia, nearby, where you can see the Internet in operation. It was at the office of a high-tech firm called VeriSign. And on one wall of the company's fourth floor operation center there, there's a big color monitor with a lit up map of the world. It's something like an Internet traffic map. And Ken Silva, VeriSign's chief technology officer, told me what it shows.

Mr. KEN SILVA (Chief Technology Officer, VeriSign): At any given instant in time, we can see how many transactions at each location are going on. For example, in Miami, we're currently getting 60,000 queries per second. New York City's getting 77,000 per second. Tokyo is getting 50,000 per second.

GJELTEN: A little explanation: Traffic on the Internet involves one computer contacting another to get information. When you go to load some Web page for the first time, your computer needs to find its way to the computer where that Web page is stored - not so easy with more than a billion computers connected to the Internet worldwide.

To reach the computer with the Web page you want, you need that computer's Internet address. It's a number. This is where VeriSign comes in. It's the dot-com white pages for the whole world, a computer anywhere on Earth that needs some new dot-com address is likely to find it through Ken Silva's VeriSign servers. These are the queries he's talking about. And business is booming.

Mr. SILVA: Just a year ago, we were doing about two-thirds the volume of what we're doing today.

GJELTEN: And today, they're handling about a million Internet address requests per second. The address system is what makes the Internet work. It's overseen by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers - ICANN for short. To the extent there is one global authority over the Internet, it's ICANN. The current ICANN head, a former California entrepreneur named Rod Beckstrom, is doing his best to keep the Internet above politics.

Mr. ROD BECKSTROM (President, Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers): And I believe in world unity. And I believe that the Internet is an incredible platform for world unity and enhancing relationships and integrating commerce and societies.

GJELTEN: And this is where global Internet governance stands right now: neutral, apolitical, largely hands off. But how long can that model be sustained, given the tremendous rise in Internet traffic and the growing strategic importance of the Internet to countries with very different interests?

It's not hard to imagine governments demanding more of a voice in the way the Internet operates because of politics. Authorities in Iran, for example, are said to be considering a partial separation from the Internet, creating instead a national Internet that connects to the global Internet in ways only the Iranian authorities can control. Jim Lewis directs the Technology and Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International studies.

Mr. JIM LEWIS (Director, Technology and Public Policy Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies): We could see a fragmentation of the Internet. You would have choke points at which you would have to be approved, just like with passports in airports. Someone would look and say, am I going to let you into my country?

GJELTEN: A country could do this by developing its own computer address file. Incoming or outgoing queries would have to go through a server with access to that special national file. Some requests for Internet address numbers would get answered, others would not.

Jim Lewis says such an Internet system could put a country in a better position to fight a cyber war. Right now, if you launch a cyber attack and you're connected to the global Internet, you can expose yourself to retaliation.

Mr. LEWIS: But if you could figure out some way to insulate yourself, you would be less uncertain about the consequences of your attack, and therefore, more willing to launch them.

GJELTEN: Of course, there is a downside to taking yourself off the global Internet. Nations benefit from being part of a larger community economically, scientifically, culturally. Rod Beckstrom at ICANN calls it the network effect, and he doubts any country would forego it.

Mr. BECKSTROM: And the truth is, there's never been a greater network on the planet Earth than the Internet. So inasmuch as people want to talk about fragmenting, they've really only done it on a test basis. Why? Because you cut yourself off from the rest of the world. You lose the network effect.

GJELTEN: But the Internet could be politicized in other ways. Stephen Spoonamore, a cyber entrepreneur with extensive experience in China, thinks that country's leadership has its eyes on ICANN, the one Internet rulemaking authority. Already, China has more Internet users than any other country in the world. Visionary Chinese, Spoonamore says, dream about taking over the Internet, not insulating themselves from it, as the Iranians might.

Mr. STEPHEN SPOONAMORE (Entrepreneur): The Chinese IT guys I've met are really smart dudes and gals, and they're good. And they look at this and go, hmm, that would limit us.

GJELTEN: Yeah.

Mr. SPOONAMORE: I would rather do something more sophisticated, like control every switch in the world and every search in the world.

GJELTEN: Many Internet experts say that's a far-fetched notion. It would mean taking over ICANN, which is now directed by an international board. With representatives of non-governmental organizations, China would presumably have to get its functions moved to the United Nations or another body where the Chinese have clout. And even if China controlled ICANN, it would have to dig deeper into actual Internet operations than ICANN does now in order to gain control over user searches. But Spoonamore says it could happen.

Mr. SPOONAMORE: Technically, not hard. Policy-wise, I think it's a big lift to try and get it to happen. But I have a huge respect - you know, I've done quite a bit of work in China and have a huge respect for their ability to say, this is going to be the big lift, and we'll dedicate a decade to getting the big lift done.

GJELTEN: All we really know, Steve, is that the Internet has become something no one dreamed of 20 years ago, and that means no one really knows how it will evolve in the future, or who, if anyone, will control it.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Gjelten has been covering Internet security this week. And Tom, all week we've been hearing allusions to the Chinese. What does the Chinese government say, if anything, about these suggestions that they're scheming to take over the Internet?

GJELTEN: They don't say very much, Steve. At one point, you know, about five years ago, they actually did make a push to dismantle ICANN and move it to the U.N. They've since dropped that effort. They're now working closely with the ICANN leadership, but they do still argue that Internet governance should be more internationalized. They feel it's too U.S.-dominated. Remember, the Internet was a U.S. invention, and for much of its history, the U.S. government did have a leading role in its governance.

INSKEEP: So having talked to Americans about their concerns about Internet security, what's the main conclusion you've come away with?

GJELTEN: Steve, I don't think we've really yet grasped the extent to which cyber and the Internet have really changed the security landscape - I mean, both the way espionage and war fighting has changed, and also where it'll occur. It's a whole new battle space, and our whole thinking about national security has to change.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Gjelten, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: You bet, Steve.

INSKEEP: And if you missed any of Tom's earlier reports, you can find them at npr.org.

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