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European Commission mulls who should govern the internet

The European Commission yesterday set out its priorities for a forthcoming international summit on developing the information society. Top of the agenda is the question of internet governance, currently in the control of US-based ICANN.31 May 2005

This will be the second World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The first one took place in Geneva in December 2003, with the aim of finding ways of using ICT to improve the global economy and tackle worldwide problems such as poverty.

It was hailed a success, resulting in a Declaration of Principles for governing the information society and an Action Plan for implementing them. But agreement was only reached by leaving the toughest issues to future discussion. Most controversial among these was the question of who should govern the internet.

At present, ICANN, the US-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, has responsibility for Internet Protocol (IP) address space allocation, protocol identifier assignment, generic (gTLD) and country code (ccTLD) Top-Level Domain name system management, and root server system management functions. It is a non-profit corporation that derives its authority from a 1998 agreement with the US Government.

Several developing countries argue that control of the internet should be in the hands of an international body such as the UN. But many developed countries disagree, looking to increase the role of national governments in the regulation of the internet.

In the end, delegates in Geneva reached a compromise agreement, setting up a working group to consider questions of internet management. This committee is due to report at the second WSIS in November.

In anticipation of the second WSIS, in Tunisia, the European Commission has published a paper that, among other things, addresses internet governance – albeit rather vague on the powers and limitations it would apply to ICANN.

The Commission says a new cooperation model is needed – comprising governments, the private sector, civil society and international organisations. Its 13-page Communication states: "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."

It suggests that this new model should not replace "existing mechanisms or institutions," but should build on the existing structures of internet governance. It does not elaborate on the nature of the new model or ICANN's position within it.

EU Telecommunications Ministers will discuss the Communication on 27th June.