US control over how Internet addresses are assigned, defining how people around the world access email and websites dominated discussions in a major UN conference on the Internet that started on Monday.
While few participants at the Internet Governance Forum attacked the US directly, most were well aware of the role Americans play in crafting domain name policies, including whether and how to assign suffixes in languages besides English. “The Internet is transnational,” said Brazil’s culture minister Gilberto Gil. “It can’t be under the authority of one country. The Internet should be the territory of everyone.”
The forum, an annual conference to discuss issues including spam and cheaper Web access, has no decision-making powers. At most, those seeking change can use the conference to pressure the US to step back.
At issue is control over domain names such as “com” and “org,” which computers need to find websites and route email. By controlling the core systems, the US indirectly influences much of what appears online.
The US government, which funded much of the Internet’s early development, delegated domain-name policies to a Marina del Rey, California-based non-profit body, the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) over which the US retains veto power.
Many countries complained the US influence wasn’t discussed enough during the first Internet Governance Forum last year in Athens, and preceded this year’s conference with panel devoted to “critical Internet resources”.
But critics fear that putting Icann under the management of a broad organization such as the UN would allow governments to further politicize the Web and more easily impose censorship. Paul Twomey, Icann’s Australian president and chief executive insisted the organization is “international,” noting only three of its 15 board members are from the US. “High politics” are fuelling the debate over American influence at the regulator, he said.