The evolution of Internet governance has mainly been happening behind closed doors, during meetings of bodies that are sometimes held in far-flung places.
These stakeholders, who usually meet under the banner of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), come from varied academic, corporate and governmental backgrounds.
In November 2005, an agreement was struck between the EU and the US to leave the supervision of domain names and other technical resources unchanged – that is, in the hands of the US.
In order to smooth over previous rows about US dominance of the Internet, a new purely consultative international forum was established, the purpose of which was to strengthen governments' standing on Internet policy issues, including the address system.
A UN body, called the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), met for the first time in Athens on 30 October 2006. It is convened by the United Nations secretary-general and has no power beyond the ability to bring together all the stakeholders on the Internet.
On 29 September 2006, one day before the expiry of a memorandum of understanding that tied ICANN to the US Department of Commerce, both parties signed a new agreement which leaves more freedom to ICANN:
First, ICANN will no longer have its work prescribed for it. How it works and what it works on is up to ICANN and its community to devise.
Second, ICANN is no longer required to report every six months to the US Department of Commerce. It will now provide an annual report that will be targeted at the whole Internet community.
The last meeting of the IGF took place in Vilnius, Lithuania in 2010 while ICANN met in Norway in September 2010.
ICANN holds periodic public meetings rotated between continents for the purpose of encouraging global participation in its processes.
Critics argue that these public meetings are often held in countries with lower Internet usage and far away from locations that the majority of the Internet-using public cannot afford to reach.
The body has also been criticised for being secretive and not providing the wider Internet community with information on its decision-making.
Since ICANN was established in 1998, the United States has been the sole supervisor of the organisation's policy decisions, such as dispute resolution over domain name ownership or the introduction of top-level domains.
On 2 October 2009, the United States announced it will give up its unilateral supervision powers over ICANN, the body responsible for managing Internet addresses worldwide. The move was warmly welcomed by the EU and web advocacy groups.
In practical terms, this means that "the political responsibility of the Internet moves from the US to the global community," ICANN's Massimiliano Minisci said.
The so-called ICANN community includes governments, companies, civil society and technical experts from all over the world.
EU joins debate
In a May 2009 speech, Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding urged the Obama administration to embark on ambitious reform of Internet governance (EURACTIV 06/05/09).
Reding proposed the establishment of a G12 to govern the Internet, to replace the current US-driven system.
Reding's successor, Neelie Kroes, has not made such concrete declarations, but she appears to be towing the same line.
The commissioner's flagship Digital Agenda aims to support the continuation of the Internet Governance Forum beyond 2010 and to work with third countries on digital goods, services and intellectual property rights.
More importantly, the EU will likely "seek a mandate to update international agreements in line with technological progress or, where appropriate, propose new instruments," according to a European Commission source.
The Commission agrees that Internet governance should continue to be led by the private sector but wants to see it extended to developing and emerging markets, Kroes said in a recent speech.
"I believe that it is of utmost importance that citizens now have the option to use scripts of their language for their domain names, email addresses and so on, just like in their everyday life," Kroes affirmed.
Though users will inevitably turn to their governments if there is any major disruption to their Internet service, she warned against giving governments a stronger role in its day-to-day operation.
"This private-sector leadership continues to deliver important public policy objectives and needs to be maintained and supported," the commissioner said.
Kroes' calls for a more multilateral approach to Internet governance came at the annual 2010 IGF meeting, where 115 countries were represented.
An Internet treaty?
The Council of Europe's expert group on critical Internet resources and cross-border traffic presented its proposal for '12 principles of Internet governance' at the 2010 summit of the Internet Governance Forum in Lithuania. The draft treaty to enshrine the principles of net neutrality and protect the Internet from political interference was discussed but not adopted by the Internet Governance Forum.
In basic terms, net neutrality means that the commercial interests of telecommunications companies and Internet service providers should not affect consumers' access to the Web. For example, any action taken for competitive gain, like blocking access to Skype for selling another Internet telephony service, runs counter to the principles of net neutrality.
The draft Internet treaty has been likened to the Space Treaty, signed in 1967, which said that space exploration should be carried out for the benefit of all nations and guarantee "free access to all areas of celestial bodies".
"The fundamental functions and the core principles of the Internet must be preserved in all layers of the Internet architecture with a view to guaranteeing the interoperability of networks in terms of infrastructures, services and contents," reads the proposal.
The proposal was drawn up by the Council of Europe, an organisation based in Strasbourg which has 47 member states and aims to promote human rights, the rule of law and democracy in Europe.
In April 2010, Digital Agenda Commissioner Kroes said that whatever business model Internet service providers (ISPs) choose, it must not interfere with customers' access to Internet services of any kind.
Control of the Internet
Many governments are trying to exert more control over the Internet but most of these are not in the EU. China's firewall is one well-documented example.
However, that could change, argue politicians, who fear a draft EU law to tackle child pornography would allow EU authorities to filter the Internet for politically unwanted material.
The European Commission wants member states to filter out child porn from the Internet and impose harsher sentences on human trafficking, but the European Parliament has cast doubt as to whether new EU laws would be tough enough.
German Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht warned that the German government would in fact try to block any attempt by the EU to filter out illegal content online. Albrecht alleges that the blocking of porn websites would lead authorities to block other unwanted content, such as politically critical websites.
In addition, secretive negotiations to tackle counterfeiting and online piracy are fuelling fears that governments are looking for ways to assert control over the Internet. The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which was signed off by global negotiating partners in October 2010, is still subject to approval from the European Parliament.
MEPs' disapproval would send negotiators back to the drawing board. ACTA has been mired in controversy from the outset as lobbyists worry that the agreement would force Internet service providers to police the web. Activists argue that ACTA could infringe fundamental rights, as ISPs and regional Internet authorities could bypass the legal system to cut consumers off from the Internet if they are caught pirating content.