Transatlantic row over control of the internet

The UK-led EU delegation at a high-level meeting on internet governance has angered the US with a proposal to hand administration of the internet over to the United Nations. 

The way that the internet is governed has been challenged by many countries, with the EU and emerging economies such as Brazil, China and India at the helm. The Brazilian delegation at the Geneva meeting commented: “On Internet governance, three words tend to come to mind: lack of legitimacy. In our digital world, only one nation decides for all of us.”

 The United Nations Working Group on Internet Governance (
) has released a report calling for an end to the US’s “pre-eminent role” in the management of the internet and said that there is a need for global institutions to be set up to tackle spam and network security issues: “No single government should have a pre-eminent role in relation to international internet governance.” 

In its 2 June 2005 Communication on the second phase of WSIS, the Commission  stated: 

“The EU believes that a new cooperation model is needed in order to give substance to the provisions in the WSIS Declaration of Principles regarding the crucial role of all stakeholders within Internet governance, including governments, the private sector, civil society and international organisations. Existing Internet governance mechanisms should be founded on a more solid democratic, transparent and multilateral basis, with a stronger emphasis on the public policy interest of all governments. This new model should be based on the following principles: 

  1. It should not replace existing mechanisms or institutions, but should build on the existing structures of Internet governance, with special emphasis on the complementarity between all the stakeholders involved in this process: governments, the private sector, civil society and international organisations; 
  2. The new public-private cooperation model should contribute to the sustainable stability and robustness of the Internet by addressing appropriately public policy issues related to key aspects of Internet governance. ” 

This statement was repeated in the EU’s 1 August 2005 initial comments on the WGIG Report. It also appears in the 28 September 2005 EU/UK proposal for additions to a paper of the Chair of the Sub-Committee on Internet Governance. What makes the United States furious in this proposal is the introduction of a “new cooperation model”, which 

“should include the development and application of globally applicable public policy principles and provide an international government involvement at the level of principles over the following naming, numbering and addressing-related matters: 
a. Provision for a global allocation system of IP number blocks, which is equitable and efficient; 
b. Procedures for changing the root zone file, specifically for the insertion of new top level domains in the root system and changes of ccTLD managers; 
c. Establishment of contingency plans to ensure the continuity of crucial DNS functions; 
d. Establishment of an arbitration and dispute resolution mechanism based on international law in case of disputes; 
e. Rules applicable to DNS system.”

Ambassador David Gross, coordinator for international communications and information policy at the US State Department, 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. We think that that's inappropriate. The genius of the Internet is that it has been flexible, private sector led." Ambassador Gross added: "We've been very, very clear throughout the process that there are certain things we can agree to and certain things we can't agree to. We will not agree to the UN taking over the management of the internet. Some countries want that. We think that's unacceptable. It's not a negotiating issue. This is a matter of national policy."

David Hendon from the  UK Department of Trade and Industry and the spokesman for the EU delegation, said: "I think the U.S. is overreacting. But I think it's a tactical overreaction for the negotiations. [...] We expected this proposal to move the summit along from the stalemate. It is unreasonable to leave in the hands of the US the power to decide what happens with the Internet in other countries."

Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding  said, in a 13 July 2005 speech to the European Institute in Washington DC: "The EU has recently signalled its priorities for internet governance. These are: [...] the increased internationalisation of the management of core internet resources and the need to ensure that developing countries can better participate in this governance."  

The internet is currently controlled by ICANN, a formally private and formally non-profit organisation based in California and acting under a contract with the US Department of Commerce. The contract was "sole sourced", which means no-one else was able to submit a bid to perform the task. 

The governance of the internet is currently being discussed in Geneva at a preparatory meeting for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which will take place in Tunis on 16 to 18 November 2005. 

  • WSIS Prepcom 3 - Chair of the Sub-Committee A (Internet Governance) - Chapter Three: Internet GovernanceChair’s paper(29 September 2005)

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