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A new era today in the growth of the Internet. For the first time, organizations can apply for an Internet address all their own: .com or .org can now be replaced by, say, .starbucks or .newyork. The expansion was planned by the one organization empowered to regulate the global Internet, it's called ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, debate over the new policy has highlighted one key question: Who, if anyone, should control the Internet?
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Anyone who wants their own Internet suffix, their own domain name, will have to pay $185,000 for it. This development could be costly even for those who just want to keep someone else from grabbing their name. Not surprisingly, ICANN has been criticized for pushing the change. And in Congress, members have been eager to offer the ICANN leadership some free advice.
REPRESENTATIVE ED MARKEY: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I believe that ICANN's proposed changes need to be closely scrutinized. And I thank the gentleman...
REPRESENTATIVE DORIS MATSUI: Mr. Chairman, I believe ICANN needs to take a step back, slow down and reexamine this proposal. The Internet...
REPRESENTATIVE CLIFF STEARNS: I think you folks should take to advice here and not charge so much here.
GJELTEN: Democrats, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, and Doris Matsui of California, plus a Republican, Cliff Stearns of Florida. Unhappiness with ICANN on Capitol Hill is bipartisan. Some members of Congress actually wanted the Department of Commerce to order ICANN to delay the domain name expansion.
The Internet was a U.S. creation and ICANN was chartered by the Commerce Department, but by urging the Commerce Department now to give ICANN orders, members of Congress may inadvertently aggravate another problem: Internationally, there is currently a big pushback over U.S. domination of the Internet and a growing move to diminish the U.S. role.
Kieren McCarthy, an analyst of Internet governance issues, says some U.S. officials worry pressure on the Commerce Department to dictate ICANN policies could backfire.
KIEREN MCCARTHY: It's making the Internet look exactly like the rest of the world fears that it is, which is a U.S.-controlled entity.
GJELTEN: In fact, nearly half of all Internet users today are in Asia. ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom, this week, said the domain expansion will reflect the way the Internet is destined to change in the coming years.
ROD BECKSTROM: You're going to see more different languages in domain names, I would predict, and so it's going to look more like the world and it's going to look less like one individual country and I think that that's a good thing.
GJELTEN: But ICANN's increasingly international focus may not be enough to satisfy governments that resent the U.S. role in Internet governance. Those complaints are likely to come to a head this December, when the International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency, holds a meeting in Dubai to rewrite legally binding global treaties in such a way as to radically change how the Internet would be governed worldwide.
MCCARTHY: It's extremely serious. It's absolutely - it's fundamental.
GJELTEN: Kieren McCarthy.
MCCARTHY: Everyone knows that changes will be made at this UN meeting in December in Dubai and now the effort is to limit the impacts that those changes will have.
GJELTEN: The move is led by China, Russia and India, all of which, in one form or another, favor putting the Internet under the supervision of the United Nations.
David Gross, who has represented the United States at other international telecommunications meetings, says UN supervision could jeopardize ICANN's current approach under which the Internet is overseen by a variety of groups. It's called the multi-stakeholder principle.
DAVID GROSS: Governments, including the U.S. government, but others, as well, the private sector, technical groups, NGOs, non-governmental organizations, and others should all have a say in how the Internet should develop.
GJELTEN: That's how ICANN works now, but if the Internet were brought under UN control, governments alone could control the Internet. Some would want to keep it free and open, but not all of them, Gross says.
GROSS: Other governments, of course, would like to see increased governmental control as a way of suppressing free flow of information or suppressing innovation and changes that the Internet brings.
GJELTEN: China and Russia, in particular, are proposing new restrictions on Internet activity and those governments are big movers behind next December's UN conference on the Internet. They will be opposed by the United States.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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