Moves are afoot at the United Nations that could decide the way the Internet is run worldwide in the future.
The secretary of the UN's new working group on Internet governance, Markus Kummer, made a presentation during the ITU Telecom Africa 2004 conference in Cairo earlier this month detailing its progress.
He characterised the state of deliberation as merely the beginning of a reflection process on how best to coordinate Internet governance.
The working group itself is still in the process of being constituted. But Kummer emphasised that time was short, with some conclusion expected to be presented at the second part of the Worldwide Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) next year in Tunis.
National interests as expressed at the first WSIS meeting, in Geneva last year, appear divided. Some recommend a new governance structure with heavy involvement from government and an inter-governmental body such as the ITU to coordinate governance of the Internet internationally. Others insist that little or nothing is "broken" about the present structure, which is extensively private industry-centered, under the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
But InternetNZ international affairs committee chairman, Peter Dengate Thrush, suggests the appearance of two points of view is deceptive. “There are a number of parties with their own concerns and some of them seem to be talking across each other,” he said.
Some countries whose Internet users are dissatisfied with management of their own national domain – “maybe it's being managed from outside the country” – have been persuaded that the best alternative is to have their government manage it.
Others want to escalate Internet matters to a government and inter-governmental level in the hope of tackling digital divide questions, ensuring more influence for less advanced nations at any international Internet governance table.
A wide spectrum of views was possible from complete laissez-faire to tight governmental and intergovernmental control, Dengate Thrush said. Most people were at an intermediate point on the spectrum, seeing some kind of public-private cooperation.
InternetNZ supports ICANN but acknowledges the need for a broader range of influences within the ICANN structure. Governments, it acknowledges, have to be concerned with matters at the content level, such as the elimination of spam.
Meanwhile, several European countries, including the UK, one of the most populous Internet communities outside the US, were refusing to join the Country-Code Names Supporting Organization (ccNSO) set up after laborious negotiation as a way for national communities to have influence in ICANN.
Two issues appear to be at the root of this refusal. The first involves questioning the accountability of ICANN for its spending – it has been involved, for example, in a legal battle with VeriSign, which runs the .com and .net domains.
The other major bone of contention is ICANN's refusal to give up control of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which manages the root machines on the network.
Wllie Black, executive chairman of NomiNet, the company that runs UK domain-name assignment, has said he wants to see an independent IANA, outside the control of ICANN, where many see the US government still having too much of an influence.
But the logic of protesting by staying out of the ccNSO eluded Dengate Thrush. Surely the way to change things was from the inside, he said.