11/16/2005, 00.00
INTERNET

Summit on the Information Society: internet to remain in US hands

The US succeeds in preserving ICANN's control over the Net. An intergovernmental forum is however set up to enable discussions over the next five years. Tunis summit will not address web censorhip.

Tunis (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) opened today after an eleventh-hour compromise on the issue of who should remain in charge of the internet.   In ten years it has grown to a billion users, but will still be managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California-based, non-profit corporation responsible to the US Commerce Department. Its main task is to assign domain names such as com, .org and .net to world-wide applicants and can, in theory, deny access to whole countries.

The US government is opposed to sharing control with the rest of the world on the grounds that changing the current system would open the door to countries that stifle freedom of expression on the internet.

Countries like China, Iran and Syria have lined up against the United States concerned that the Americans might use their power to shut them out of the Net. For this reason, they have demanded that the United Nations take it over. However, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has rejected the idea.

Reporters without borders (RSF) have also come out against the idea. For the media watchdog the status quo is preferable to transferring ICANN's tasks to the UN where the most repressive regimes—those that jail Net users— have the same weight as democratic states.

In the end, the states who wanted to establish an international control under the UN will have to settle for a five-year intergovernmental forum on internet management, spam, users' rights, security and pornography.

For Julian Bein, of RSF, "[t]he internet is not just a technical issue," but an urgent political and human rights issue as well. But remarkably, the Tunis summit will not have a single seminar or discussion panel on freedom of expression.

Some states have tried to resist the free circulation of information that Internet's fantastic growth has allowed and have put up barriers to their nationals' access to the Net.

Since the previous WSIS meeting in Geneva (Switzerland) two years ago, they have introduced technologies to filter access and "guide" users on the Net as they see fit.

In Uzbekistan authorities copy controversial sites, change their content and then repost their own version—all without the users being aware. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates filter content openly. In Iran censorship officially aims to protect the public from immoral, "non-Islamic" sites, but in reality concern centres on the political potential of the internet. In the Islamic Republic, it is currently easier to access pornographic websites than reformist ones.

China has the world's most developed internet censorship technology, thanks, ironically, to companies such as Yahoo!  that has provided the government information on users; Microsoft, which has accepted to filter words like 'democracy" or 'freedom' or 'human rights' in its Chinese-language operations; and Google, which is accused of censoring its research engine to please Beijing.

In the end, the WSIS, which was originally meant to tackle the digital divide between developed and developing countries, is turning into a series of diplomatic squabbles overshadowing the meeting in Tunis.

On a more positive note, International Telecommunication Union Secretary-General Yoshio Utsumi said he was quite confident of connecting the world by 2015, including the 800,000 villages that remain disconnected from information and communication technologies.

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