WSIS: Internet governance remains sticking point

Internet governance was a contentious issue at the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in December 2003 and, judging by the preparatory talks currently under way in Geneva, the issue will remain red hot at the second phase of the summit in November.

“The talks were off to a very slow start on Monday of last week but have since gained some momentum,” said Sarah Parkes, a spokeswoman for the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an arm of the United Nations (U.N.), which is hosting the final preparatory meeting (PrepCom-3) for the second phase of WSIS in Tunis, Tunisia.

“Today is crucial. If the delegates continue to disagree on Internet governance as they have until now, they may not have enough time to reach a final agreement by Friday when the meeting officially ends,” Parkes said.

Internet governance was one of two issues, the other funding, that split delegates attending the first WSIS in Geneva nearly two years ago and forced U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to establish separate tasks forces to study them.

The final report the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) and another paper drafted specifically for the preparatory meeting in Geneva are fueling the current debate. A particularly touchy element of the latter document is a section that focuses on “possible future arrangements,” according to Parkes.

China and Brazil are among several countries calling for one or more global bodies, such as the ITU, to manage Internet resources, such as domain names, root servers and IP (Internet Protocol) addresses — an area that is heavily controlled by the U.S. today.

The U.S., however, continues to back ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the group that manages this crucial Internet infrastructure. The European Union (E.U.) also supports a private model, along the line of the U.S.-backed ICANN, preferring not to see the ITU become involved.

In its report, WGIG stated: “No single government should have a pre-eminent role in relation to international Internet governance.”

But Michael Gallagher, from the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, recently indicated that his government was not yet read to give up “its historic role” in managing the Internet.

Internet funding, another prickly issue that had been delegated to a task force after the first WSIS, is also on the PrepCom-3 agenda but talks thus far “have gone smoothly,” Parkes said.

At the Geneva gathering two years ago, demands by several developing countries to create a “digital solidarity fund” met strong resistance by developed countries, which argued that existing financing mechanisms could be better leveraged.

The Tunis phase of WSIS will take place from Nov. 16 to Nov. 18.

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