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WSIS: US, EU at odds over net governance

Both sides claim victory

Both the US and the EU (European Union) are claiming victory in an agreement reached late on Tuesday over internet governance.

The issue was widely viewed as one of the most contentious of the subjects debated at the WSIS, or World Summit on the Information Society, in Tunis.

The only problem is, both parties maintain opposing positions in the debate. While the US interprets the agreement to give it continued control over the web's core components, including its addressing systems, the EU reads it to open the door for internet oversight to be shared by the governments of the world.

The political smoke in Tunis is thick and heavy.

"The document is fabulous," said David Gross, ambassador for the bureau of economic and business affairs at the US Department of State and the leader of the US delegation. "There were proposals to create a governmental organisation that might control many technical aspects of the internet and, through this, content as well. This is now off the table. There is no change to the US role, and no change to Icann [the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers]."

Gross warned that opening the process to intergovernmental oversight could weigh down the internet with bureaucracy and stifle innovation.

The only change that Gross acknowledged was an agreement to create a forum as a platform to discuss issues, such as cybercrime and spam. But he was quick to point out that "the forum will play no role in oversight".

As the EU sees it, however, the US has consented to considering a new oversight body by agreeing to the wording "enhanced co-operation" in the document approved by delegates in the internet governance group, according to Martin Selmayr, a spokesman for EU information society commissioner Viviane Reding.

"The role of Icann shouldn't change, but what has to change is the oversight role," Selmayr said.

The EU and other countries are demanding "oversight in cooperation and on equal footing", he added.

There appears to be plenty of room for interpretation, and the reason is clear: there's a lot at stake for the US and the EU - and the world, for that matter.

There is concern that a stalemate in the talks over net governance could result in governments breaking away to launch their own root file systems for managing IP traffic that, in the worst-case scenario, are not interconnected and interoperable, and that could lead to a fragmentation of the internet and a possible breakdown in global data communications.

Countries including China, Brazil and Russia lobbied intensively at the first summit in Geneva two years ago for changes to the current system. The EU, which had initially supported the status-quo position of the US, made a surprise turnabout in September, when it agreed for the need for more governmental participation.


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