U.S. business and government officials were united Thursday in their opposition to recent proposals to create an international Internet governing body, saying it could slow innovation and limit online choices.
Proposals to establish an international governing body and take away the administration of the Internet's top-level domain name system from the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) would open the Internet up to the political whims of many governments, said Rick Lane, vice president of government affairs at News Corp., a huge media company based in New York.
"That is one of our concerns: that all of the sudden, politics that have nothing to do with ICANN start trickling into ... how the Internet is being run," said Lane, speaking at a forum about the upcoming World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). "If the Internet gets bogged down too much in the politics of what's going on in the world, our businesses will suffer definitely, but I believe who will suffer the most are the folks who access ... the great information that is out there on the Internet."
In September, the European Union split with the U.S. and called for an international governing body for the Internet and a reduced role for ICANN, created in 1998 by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The EU proposal would create a new model for allocating IP number blocks, and the EU also called for a new forum to address Internet policy issues. The argument over Internet governance will be part of the second phase of the U.N.-sponsored WSIS in Tunis, Tunisia, starting Nov. 16.
Critics of U.S. control of ICANN say it's time for Internet governance to take on a more international flavor. ICANN, which manages crucial Internet infrastructure such as domain names, root servers and IP addresses, has faced criticism in the past from international groups that say the organization has too much control over the Internet. Some critics have also complained in the past that ICANN has been closed off from outside participation.
But officials from U.S. companies including Microsoft, IBM and Google called for WSIS to shift its focus to ways that the Internet can improve the economies of developing nations, instead of debating Internet governance. The focus on Internet governance is a substitute for some governments' concerns about the "radical changes" the Internet is bringing to culture, politics and religion, said Fred Tipton, director of international organizations and development at Microsoft.
"Countries can lambaste the U.S. because they don't like the way ICANN is structured," Tipton said. "In long run, we need to respond to what I think is a legitimate responsibility of government officials in every country in the world to understand how the Internet impacts their fundamental cultural, economic and social situation."
The EU governance proposal has met stiff resistance from U.S. President George Bush's administration, with Michael Gallagher, Commerce Department's assistant secretary for communications and information, saying Thursday the U.S. government will "not agree" to a new international governing body. The current system is working well, with ICANN administering the domain name system and private businesses largely setting the direction of the Internet, he said.
"The United States does not support top-down intergovernmental regulation or control of the Internet," Gallagher added. "We do not believe in adding an intergovernmental layer of bureaucracy."
Gallagher and other speakers also questioned why the role of ICANN, essentially coordinating the Internet addressing system, has become a major focus of WSIS instead of issues such as the economic development that the Internet can bring to developing nations. The domain name system is an important piece of the Internet's infrastructure, but the debate about its administration misses larger issues about the benefits of the Internet, he said.
"We're spending our time talking about the phone book," Gallagher said. "That is not the miracle or the creative energy or the value of the network."
Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, a trade group that sponsored Thursday's forum, asked participants what would be the worst possible outcome of the upcoming WSIS. Several answered that a move toward an international governing organization would hurt the Internet.
"If the purpose is to slow down the development of the Internet and to inhibit entrepreneurship and innovation, that is the way to do it," said Frank Urbany, vice president of international issues for BellSouth, a large telecommunications carrier.