The internet is doing nicely without its own UN
Who runs the internet? Who cares? As long as your internet browser sends you to the right location in cyberspace, the technical workings of the World Wide Web aren't really of much concern. Right?
For web users that's right, but for governments and technology bodies around the world, there's a brewing concern about the fact that most of the infrastructure that powers the internet is based in the United States. Of the 13 servers hosting the intricate system that directs us all to the right places on the internet, only three are based outside of the country.
So far that hasn't proven to be any problem.
A bunch of benevolent American university boffins, some military types and a few IT visionaries from the private sector were primarily responsible for getting the network now known as the internet off the ground in the 1970s. They are legends for doing so and have kept a close eye on the internet's development ever since.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Addresses (ICANN) is the web's current babysitter. But for a technology body, it courts a fair amount of controversy.
The reasons for that are political and commercial. Remember the "internet land-grab"? It kicked into high gear during the dotcom boom as corporates scrambled to reserve the best domain names. The current animosity towards the US-dominated ICANN is a lot like that. No one knows what the future will hold for the internet - and countries, especially developing ones such as India, want a say in how the web will work years from now.
The scenario has played out in the real world since time began. All those conferences of the "big three" (Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin) that took place toward the end of World War II, were to decide how to carve up control of post-war Europe.
It was a delicate game of give and take. Stalin was happy to abandon the communists in Greece for a bigger prize - dominance in Romania and Poland. Churchill, wanting to counter the power of Russia, demanded the French get a controlling slice of the new Germany.
They also talked about setting up a governing body for the world - the United Nations. Now, that same body is facilitating the debate about the delegation of power on the internet. Unable to agree on a single scenario for governance of the internet, a special UN body has drawn up four.
Option one is for the United Nations to create a "global internet council" that would take total power away from the United States in terms of its control of ICANN.
A more radical plan calls for control of the address system to shift from US to international hands - a new body called the International Internet Council.
Yet another plan calls for the creation of three groups that would be responsible for internet addressing. That sounds like a political and logistical nightmare.
The last option, and perhaps the most sensible, is to leave ICANN intact and simply create a forum for greater debate of net issues.
A long-term, official solution will be hammered out at the UN's World Summit on the Information Society, which will be held in Tunisia in November. It will consider taking up one of the proposed options.
Expect there to be some heated debate and intense lobbying as the future controllers of the internet are elected.
None of this would be an issue, were it not for a couple of ominous signs that the United States is willing to fight like hell to maintain the status quo.
Earlier this year, the US Department of Commerce said it planned to keep its hands on the "root zone" file, a simple text file that's integral to this system of turning internet protocol (IP) addresses into actual web addresses.
Apparently the United States "intends to preserve the security and stability" of the web's architecture and needs to keep control to do so.
On top of that came word last month from US Assistant Commerce Secretary Michael Gallagher that the US government is doing away with plans to have an international body overseeing the workings of the internet. In the context of the "war on terror", it's easy to see the Washington thinking behind this. Cyber-terrorism is a not insignificant threat.
ICANN cut its ties with the Department of Commerce late next year but its desire to keep the power base in the United States is unlikely to change.
US moves to draw the web closer to its chest shouldn't worry the rest of the world. The web is essential to US business. The biggest online traders - the likes of amazon.com and eBay.com - are all American. It's in the interests of the United States for all of us to have unfettered, global access to the web. That's why they haven't ring-fenced it and tried to charge us money to use it.
ICANN needn't change much, but a forum for major new issues needs to be established and the UN needs to have "power of veto" when it comes to major decisions that could inhibit access to the internet in any part of the world.
By Peter Griffin
The New Zealand Herald.