US, EU remain at odds over net governance

Despite news reports to the contrary, the US and EU are still poles apart over the internet

Both the US and the European Union are claiming victory in an agreement reached late yesterday New Zealand time over internet governance, viewed as one of the most contentious issues being debated at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis.

The only problem is, both parties still remain at the opposite ends of the internet governance debate. While the US interprets the agreement to give it continued control over the internet's core components, including its addressing systems, the EU reads it to open the door for internet oversight to be shared by governments of the world.

The political smoke here in Tunis is thick and heavy.

"The document is fabulous," says David Gross, ambassador for the bureau of economic and business affairs at the US Department of State and the person leading the US delegation. "There were proposals to create a governmental organisation that might control many technical aspects of the internet and, through this, content as well. This is now off the table. There is no change to the US role, no change to ICANN."

Gross warned that opening the process to intergovernmental oversight could weigh down the internet with bureaucracy and stifle innovation.

The only change that Gross acknowledged was an agreement to create a forum as a platform to discuss issues, such as cybercrime and spam. But he was quick to point out that the "forum will play no role in oversight."

As the EU sees it, however, the US has consented to considering a new oversight body by agreeing to the wording "enhanced cooperation" in the document approved by delegates in the internet governance group, says Martin Selmayr, a spokesman for EU Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding.

"The role of ICANN shouldn't change but what has to change is the oversight role," Selmayr says.

The EU and other countries are demanding "oversight in cooperation and on equal footing," he says.

There appears to be plenty of room for interpretation, and the reason is clear: there's a lot at stake for the US, the EU, and the world, for that matter.

There is concern that a stalemate in the talks over net governance could result in governments breaking away to launch their own root file systems for managing IP (Internet Protocol) traffic that, in the worst-case scenario, are not interconnected and interoperable, and that could lead to a fragmentation of the internet and a possible breakdown in global data communications.

Countries including China, Brazil and Russia lobbied intensively at the first summit in Geneva two years ago for changes to the current system. The EU, which had initially supported the status quo position of the US, made a surprise turnabout in September when it agreed for the need for more governmental participation.

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