Battle for control of Internet postponed

LONDON (12/08/2003) - The expected argument at this week's World Summit on the Information Society over Internet governance may have been defused, but the message from governments to Internet establishment couldn't have been clearer -- you're playing with the big boys now.

Only a last-minute 12-hour meeting at the Geneva conference managed to prevent it from been overrun by disputes between Western governments that want U.S. semi-private company ICANN to continue running the Net and the rest of the world that wants the UN -- in particular the ITU -- to take over.

All parties agreed instead to put the issue out to a consideration committee to report back in a year's time, giving it time to cool off.

But if the new head of ICANN Paul Twomey was pleased with the announcement ("a victory for the pro-business model"), he was less happy just three days earlier when he was unceremoniously thrown out of a key UN-sponsored meeting of governments.

It was closed-shop only. The press, and those not selected by an elite group of U.S. computer engineers, were not welcome. Twomey had turned up to stick his nose in and got it punched for his trouble.

"I am not amused," he told the U.S. press on a mobile outside the conference room.

"At ICANN, anybody can attend meetings, appeal decisions or go to ombudsmen. And here I am outside a UN meeting room where diplomats -- most of whom know little about the technical aspects -- are deciding in a closed forum how 750 million people should reach the Internet."

Of course the difference between the UN and ICANN is that decisions are made in UN meetings. ICANN tends to hold meetings only after the decisions have already been made (usually in a closed-room conference of the ICANN Board).

You have to pity Twomey in a way. He is desperately trying to shake the image of ICANN as an elitist, secretive and out-of-touch body, granted power by the U.S. government but with limited legitimacy. He is also a former government bod himself.

But if he thought that would buy him concessions, he was wrong. Foreign governments are particularly unhappy about the U.S. getting to run the show and the last thing they want is the man who fronts this organization turning up to lecture them about how they going to have to put up with it.

ICANN and the U.S. government have also been missed off the guest list of a top-ranking meeting tomorrow of the International Chamber of Commerce specifically set up discuss future management of the Internet.

Some big names in U.S. industry will be there though to join a selection of government officials from across the world.

And, to add Web legitimacy, Tim Berners-Lee, Esther Dyson and Nicholas Negroponte. Well, Esther was probably invited so attendants would know what not to do when she explained what was the best way forward, and Nick 'Barbie Doll' Negroponte to lighten up what could otherwise be a dull meeting -- tell us again about the future of the Internet, Nick.

But while loudly advocating that the "pro-business" approach typified by ICANN, what's the betting that Paul Twomey is secretly terrified that the big companies present -- America Online Inc., Microsoft Corp., Siemens AG, Vodafone Group PLC, The Boeing Co. -- will do what business does best: cut a deal.

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