Paul Twomey, the president of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, found out what it feels like to be voiceless. On Friday night, Twomey, who flew 20 hours to Geneva from a meeting in Vietnam to take part in a preparatory session for this week’s United Nations summit meeting on Internet issues, was escorted to the exit of the meeting room by guards after participants suddenly decided to exclude observers.
The move underscores the wrath of countries that for years have been unhappy with what they perceive as their voicelessness over how the Internet is run and over U.S. ownership of key Internet resources. It also foretells the level of criticism that both the U.S. government and the Internet Corporation, or Icann, may face at the UN meeting, one of the largest gatherings ever of high-level government officials, business leaders and nonprofit organizations to discuss the Internet’s future.
Formal meeting activities begin on Wednesday. Although more than 60 nations will be represented in Geneva by their heads of government, only a handful of industrial nations are sending their leaders. President George W. Bush has no plans to attend, though the U.S. government will be represented by other officials.
To the great frustration of the international community, Icann, a private company under contract to the U.S. government to oversee the technical aspects of the Internet’s address system, has been in a pole position of power since its formation in 1998, deciding such issues as when languages could be used as a communication tool by other nations.
Twomey, reached by mobile phone outside the conference room, said: “At Icann, anybody can attend meetings, appeal decisions or go to ombudsmen, and here I am outside a UN meeting room where diplomats – most of whom know little about the technical aspects – are deciding in a closed forum how 750 million people should reach the Internet. I am not amused.”
Twomey said he, representatives of the news media and anyone who was not a government official had been evicted from the meeting.
During the UN gathering, an expected 5,000 representatives from intragovernmental, business and nonprofit organizations will try to devise an action plan for the next phase of the Internet, addressing issues like how to close the digital divide, supervise the Internet and deal with problems like spam and pornography on the Web.
A principal point of debate will be whether the Internet should be overseen by the United Nations instead of American groups like Icann.
Since the Internet first took root in the United States, American interests had been given priority. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology still has more Internet addresses than all of China, according to Lee McKnight, an associate professor at Syracuse University in New York and an MIT research affiliate. By 2007, though, more than 50 percent of Web users will be Chinese, according to some forecasts.
Talal Abu-Ghazaleh, a Jordanian businessman who is vice chairman of the UN Information and Communication Technology Task Force, said that “the world should be grateful to Uncle Sam for creating the Internet” but that it was time for the rest of the world to have a larger voice in its governance. Abu-Ghazaleh said he planned to present his own proposal for a new, more international management of Icann at a private meeting on Tuesday.
To that end, all countries participating in the UN gathering agreed Sunday that a working group should be set up under the auspices of the United Nations to examine Internet governance issues, including the question of whether more formal oversight of Icann by governments or intragovernmental agencies is necessary, said Marcus Kummer, the Swiss Foreign Ministry’s delegate and head of the UN meeting’s working group on Internet governance.
Tuesday’s private meeting will bring together heads of state from six African, five Middle Eastern, four European and two Asian countries as well as the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, and Erkki Liikanen, the European Union’s commissioner for enterprise and information society. Conspicuously absent from the list of invitees in the private meeting are Icann and the U.S. government, which has sent a delegation of 41 people to the Geneva meeting.
High-profile Internet figures, including Nicholas Negroponte, Esther Dyson and Tim Berners-Lee, are expected to attend Tuesday’s private meeting, as are senior executives from a variety of multinational companies, including America Online, Microsoft, Boeing, Siemens, Alcatel, Vodafone and the company that Abu-Ghazaleh heads, a Cairo-based services company called the Talal Abu-Ghazaleh Organization.
The meeting will address four topics: Internet governance, the use of excess bandwidth to help development, connecting more people to communications networks and finding the appropriate technologies. At the heart of each of the four discussions will be the question of what role government and intragovernmental agencies should play.
“The U.S. government position,” a U.S. State Department spokesman said last week, “is that the Internet is coordinated and led by the private sector and should be private-sector-led.”
But he said the U.S. government was committed to insuring a balanced voice for the international community.
But many countries do not agree with the argument that the United States has no control or that Icann adequately represents the Internet’s global interests. The U.S. government gave a two-year contract to Icann in 1998 and was supposed to withdraw its support when the contract expired. But the government has not done so.
Abu-Ghazaleh plans to propose, at the private meeting, that Icann be placed under the umbrella of the UN communications task force, which gives equal status to government, private sector and nongovernmental organizations.
Under his plan, the United States would have permanent presidency of an Icann oversight committee. The International Telecommunication Union, a UN agency, and the International Chamber of Commerce would also have permanent membership, as would the World Intellectual Property Organization and the UN Conference on Trade and Development.
Each of the world’s five continents would have one elected representative on the committee, elected by the countries from the continent they represent. Icann itself would continue to be based in the United States, governed by U.S. law, and the same people who no carry out the technical work would continue to do so. Twomey, the president of Icann, said he saw no reason to change the current setup, pointing out that nearly 100 governments were already represented on Icann’s advisory committee. He said Icann planned to open regional offices in Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia in 2004.
He pointed to progress recently made on allowing languages and characters other than Roman to be used for Internet addresses. Since October, countries have been able to register domain names using Chinese (both simplified and traditional), Japanese and Korean, with Vietnamese and others to follow soon.
Twomey emphasized that Icann’s role was limited to addressing.
“If governments think they can really find a place to discuss spam and child porn and e-commerce, we would probably welcome it,” he said. “These things are not in our charter – it is not what we do. So we want to assure everyone involved that we are not standing in the way.”
But when it comes to the technical underpinnings of the Internet, Twomey said, Icann should be allowed to continue its work.
“It is not broken, so why fix it?” he asked.