U.S. Retains De Facto Internet Governance

A last-minute agreement before the United Nations’ World Summit on the Information Society has left the U.S. Commerce Department in de facto control of the Internet’s master directories by creating a non-binding, open-ended international forum to address the issues.

The subject of the Internet’ governance had threated to overtake the original agenda of the international summit: addressing the expanding “digital divide” between the world’s rich and poor and plus expanding communications technologies, information, and knowledge to all parts of the world.

Instead, the United States ignited a firestorm of criticism when the U.S. Commerce Department reversed policy and declared it did not intend to cede ultimate veto power over the management of the Internet’s root servers to an international body. The Commerce Department indicated it would retain its “historic” role indefinitely, declaring the stability and reliability of the Internet as a matter of U.S. national security.

Other countries, particularly in Europe and Asia, reacted with indignation and sought to have an truly international body, such as the United Nations, put in ultimate control of the Internet’s root servers and master directories. However, as time ran out and the original goals of the summit threatened to be lost in the fracas, representatives from more than 100 countries agreed to let the U.S. retain its Internet governance role for the time being, passing the issue to a to-be-created, open ended international forum for significant Internet issues. Although the language of the agreement has not been finalized, the forum is not expected to have any binding authority. The agreement is to be ratified before the close of the summit November 18.

The Internet’s root servers and domain-management policies are managed by the International Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which operates quasi-independently and includes international members; however, the U.S. Commerce Department can (and has) overruled ICANN on matters of Internet governance it disagrees with, most recently the creation of a so-called “online red light district” in the form of a top-level domain (like .com or .net) for adult-oriented material and businesses.

The root servers act as master directories for the Internet: every time an Internet user attempts to access a site by name

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