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U.S. still in control after internet summit

Last Updated Nov. 18, 2005

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At the UN World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia this week, negotiators came to an agreement that will allow the U.S. to retain control of the internet's domain name system.

Domain names, internet addresses with endings such as .com or .ca, will continue to be managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit organization under the supervision of the U.S. Commerce Department.

A group within the UN, including China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and the European Union, had proposed taking control of the list of top-level domains – .com, .org, .ca, .uk and the like – away from ICANN and giving to a multinational body.

The internet was born in the U.S. in the 1960s as a military and academic research tool, but now it's a worldwide commercial and communications network, and most internet users are outside of the United States.

Some foreign governments have questioned the continued American control over the internet, while American officials countered that handing control over to a multinational body would compromise the network's security.

As a compromise, a new body, the Internet Governance Forum, was formed. Yoshio Utsumi, the head of the UN International Telecommunications Union, called the formation of the IGF a victory, saying it "opened a new page in internet history."

But the agreement that established the forum assures that the forum will have "no oversight function" and "would have no involvement in day-to-day or technical operations of the internet."

That's why the U.S. was also declaring victory this week.

"[The agreement] preserved the unique role of the United States government in ensuring the reliability and stability of the internet," said David Gross, the head of the American delegation in Tunis.

"The internet lives to innovate another day," U.S. assistant secretary of commerce Michael Gallagher told the Associated Press.

On his blog, University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist argues that while the agreement appears lopsided in favour of the United States, some language in the deal could open the door to global internet governance in the future.

Before the summit got underway, blogs – particularly right-wing political blogs – were abuzz over the UN's attempted "take-over" of the internet. The National Taxpayers Union, an American group that supports small government and lower taxes, issued a news release claiming that the internet governed by the UN would be vulnerable to censorship, taxation and bureaucratic corruption.

One laptop per child

The other major announcement from the WSIS was the unveiling of a prototype for a $100 laptop aimed a schoolchildren in developing countries.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Nicolas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab demonstrated the computer at the summit.

The laptop has a bright green case and colour screen, one gigabyte of memory but no hard drive. It is powered by a hand crank and has wireless internet access and "USB ports galore."

The project, called "One Laptop per Child" hopes to have several thousand of the computers produced by next year and more than 100 million by the end of 2007. So far, China, Brazil, Thailand and Egypt have expressed interest in the computers.

Some organizations have criticized the program, saying handing out laptops is not the best way to bridge the "digital divide" between developed and developing countries. The critics also said poor families could simply sell the laptops into a black market.

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