• United States

‘Net governance: A chatty whimper

Nov 28, 20053 mins

The second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society finished up earlier this month in Tunis, and the surprising thing is how little actually happened, considering the buildup to it and the potential for trouble.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) proposed the WSIS in 1998 to examine “the interpenetration between issues of telecommunication development and those of economic, social and cultural development, as well as the impact of such interpenetration on social structures” of countries.

The idea also was to recognize “that ITU is the organization best able to seek appropriate ways to provide for development of the telecommunication sector geared to economic, social and cultural development.”

While not everyone might agree with the latter recognition, the current and future impact of information technology on society is unquestioned and much worried about.

With the support of the United Nations, the ITU decided to hold the WSIS in two phases. The first phase took the form of a meeting in Geneva in December 2003. That led to the UN forming a Working Group on Internet Governance to explore the issues and produce a report to be used as input to the second phase of WSIS, which was the just-concluded meeting in Tunis.

There were some very hot issues going into the Tunis meeting, with the hottest being the management and oversight of the core Internet technical support functions performed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) under a contract with and supervision from the U.S. government.

A lot of other world governments said it was high time that the United States relinquished sole control over these functions. Some also thought it might be time to replace ICANN with another organization, maybe even the ITU, that would be more controlled by governments and responsive to their interests.

The U.S. basically said no, and after a tense preparatory meeting in Tunis just before the formal WSIS gathering, the U.S. basically got its way. ICANN will continue to be the top of the pyramid for domain names and IP address assignments under the sole supervision of the U.S. government.

As part of the agreement, the UN will create an Internet Governance Forum that will have “no binding authority” but will debate Internet governance issues and advise ICANN and others of its deliberations. This seems fully status quo, but some countries claim that the U. S. agreed to eventually relinquish sole control, a claim with which U.S. officials disagree.

Much of the final WSIS agreement – the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society – is dedicated to the same type of issue that dominates most reports of international summits – the inequitable distribution of some resource, in this case information technology, among parts of the world.

A lot of words were said about a lot of topics in Tunis, but when the meeting ended, the expected fireworks had fizzled and the status quo had been preserved.

Hardly a monumental outcome for the 18,000-plus folks who gathered in the North African heat and traffic. And to think that the new Internet Governance Forum will soon provide opportunities to do more of the same.

Disclaimer: Harvard presents numerous opportunities for summit-type meetings to fizzle or to sizzle, but this review of WSIS in Tunis is my own.