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Debate on Internet ownership continues

By Sylvia Smith for CNN

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Negotiators from more than 100 countries have agreed to leave the U.S. in charge of the Web's addressing system -- for now.

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TUNIS, Tunisia (CNN) -- At the recent World Summit on the Information Society held in Tunisia's capital, delegates from the 174 participating countries met with the aim of bridging the "digital divide" that separates rich and poor nations.

But even higher on the agenda was the demand to reduce U.S. control over the Internet.

And despite the summit bringing together more than 30 heads of state and government, and about 20,000 of their officials, the battle for control of what is seen as a commercial goldmine, ended in a declaration that allowed the status quo to continue.

In theory, no one is supposed to run or own the Internet, the most powerful network in the world and an entity upon which the global economy increasingly relies.

In reality though, it is in the hands of an obscure American, non-profit corporation called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), based in California.

But the right of this semi-independent body to regulate domain names and allocates addresses is nearly up

George W. Bush's administration is determined to tighten its grip, turning Icann into a private corporation on U.S. soil and subject to U.S. controls, which reneges on a pledge made during Bill Clinton's presidency.

But the European Union and other countries are determined to water down its control, arguing that a truly international phenomenon should not be run by the United States and subject to a veto by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Icann's decisions may seem very technical, but the company could block access to domain names such as ".eg," thereby taking all Egyptian sites that end with .eg offline.

The commercial and political fallout would be incalculable. And so, the stakes in the debate about who controls the Internet are much higher than simply a Web address system.

Because the Internet is obviously vital to the world, everyone wants to run it. And the rules of the game are changing as rapidly as technology is developing, meaning many governments are struggling to keep up.

Some believe that stringent control is the best way forward. In a speech before a packed audience in Tunis, China's Vice Premier Huang Ju bluntly declared: "For the Internet, we need effective measures to fight against anything that harms state security."

China was one of the countries backing a motion to end U.S. domination and place the Internet under UN control.

But as Julian Bein from the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders commented, there were no seminars on freedom of expression.

"The Internet is not just a technical issue," he argued. "The countries leading the calls for control of the Internet to be placed under the aegis of the UN are the same that have led the way in censoring their own citizens."

This is a worldwide problem. Now every dictator or repressive regime in the world is attempting to control what their citizens can access."

But as well as ignoring the censorship issue, the World Summit concentrated on U.S. dominance of the Internet at the expense of other pressing issues, such as regulation of broadband television, copyright expansion, the open source movement and the protection of privacy and the use of personal information by companies.

David Gross, who headed the U.S. delegation, added to the debate saying that new and untried models of Internet governance could disrupt the more than a 250,000 networks, that use the same technical standards and which allow more than a billion people to get online each day.

The final outcome of the debates was an agreement to reconsider the role of the U.S. government in overseeing the Internet's address structure, called the domain name system (DNS), which enables communication between the world's computers at some time in the future.

David Gross welcomed the final accord, claiming that it, "preserved the unique role of the U.S. Government in ensuring the reliability and stability."

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