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Analysis: EU, U.S. slug it out in cyberspace

By CHRISTIANE KIRKETERP and GARETH HARDING   |   Oct. 21, 2005 at 4:05 PM   |   Comments

BRUSSELS, Oct. 21 (UPI) -- It is not every day that world leaders have either the time or inclination to discuss the finer points of Internet domain name control.

But when U.S. President George W. Bush met European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in the White House Tuesday he made a point of voicing his concerns about attempts to strip the United States of one of the most powerful weapons to come out of U.S. defense research: the Internet.

Washington is riled at the European Union's decision to drop its support for the current system of Internet control, where Washington oversees the work of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the non-profit Californian organization that distributes I.P. addresses and creates and allocates suffixes such as .com, .org and .net.

Brussels believes the United States' exclusive control over a global resource such as the Internet should be shared with the rest of the world's countries, although it stops short of calling for the creation of a new U.N. body to govern cyberspace.

"We have to have a platform where leaders of the world can express their thoughts about the Internet," European Commissioner for Information Society Viviane Reding said last week. "If they have the impression that the Internet is dominated by one nation and it does not belong to all the nations, then the result could be that the Internet falls apart."

The EU's about-turn -- previously it had voiced no disquiet with the current U.S.-controlled system -- was greeted with much applause in Brazil and Iran, where governments have threatened to create their own Internet if the United States refuses to relinquish some control of cyberspace.

Communist China and Cuba, countries not renowned for their enthusiasm for information sharing, support the EU's call for less U.S. government control of the Internet but go a step further in advocating an international body to oversee the Web.

Critics of the current system argue the United States should not be allowed to control phone directories in Denmark or be allowed to allocate ZIP codes in India -- which is the equivalent of what ICANN is capable of doing in cyberspace. They also point to the Bush administration's recent decision to veto the creation of an .xxx suffix for sites with an adult content as proof that the United States should not be the world's sole arbiter of good or bad taste.

However, those opposed to ceding U.S. control of the Internet say that pairing the world's fastest-evolving and most anarchic information hub with the world's slowest bureaucracy is like cloning a tiger with a hippopotamus -- an interesting idea but likely to produce a grim result.

U.S. officials find it inexplicable that the Brussels-based club has ganged up with the likes of Russia, China and Iran ahead of a U.N. summit on the information society in Tunisia next month. They argue that ICANN has never abused its authority and always adopted a light-touch approach to regulating the Internet.

Earlier this week Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., sponsored a Senate resolution calling for the World Wide Web to remain under U.S. control. The Minnesota lawmaker said handing over authority to a U.N. body could smother innovation, become a vehicle for the global taxation of domain names and lead to censorship by countries with oppressive regimes. "Many aspects of running the Internet have profound implications for competition and trade, democratization, and free expression," he said.

Commission officials deny the EU has changed its position and reject U.S. accusations that Brussels wants to wrestle control of the Internet from the United States and hand it over to a U.N. body. However, they maintain that the current setup is not sustainable in a globalized world in need of ever greater numbers of suffixes.

Martin Selmayr, a spokesman for Reding, told United Press International that 60 percent of .com domains were held by U.S. companies and only 0.5 percent by Chinese firms. "What will happen when Chinese companies want to be on the Internet? Will the United States be willing to take away a part of its share?"

Washington may be disappointed with the EU's lack of solidarity, but within the 25 member bloc not everyone is happy with the commission's stance either.

Nominet, the British manager of the .uk suffix, Thursday said it could not support the EU model because it would lead to dramatic changes that could stifle innovation.

"Intervention by governments worldwide, each with their own political agenda and cultural beliefs to uphold, threatens to consign the Internet to a future of over-regulation," said Emily Taylor, the company's policy director.

Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt has also waded into the debate with an article in the International Herald Tribune in which he accused the EU of wanting to wreck the Internet.

"The European Commission has gone too far ... with a position that has brought it enthusiastic applause from Tehran, Beijing and Havana," he wrote. "There is time for Europe to reconsider. I refuse to believe that E.C. President Jose Manuel Barroso and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair know what has been done in their name."

Brussels may have succeeded in isolating the United States. The question is, how successful will the European strategy turn out to be?

As a consensus-based organ, it only takes one vote in the U.N. forum -- that of the United States for example -- to obstruct the plan of the European Union and its rather unusual gang of accomplices.

Ironically, the very rigidity of the U.N. system, which critics fear would paralyze the Internet, could prove the U.S. delegation's trump card in Tunis.

© 2005 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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