Let's call it a clash of cultures: engineers who know the internet inside-out on one side and government policy makers grappling to understand it on the other.
For the past two years, the parties have been engaged in a frequently acrimonious debate on how the internet should be governed. That debate reached its zenith at the UN-sponsored WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society) in Tunis, Tunisia, last week when both sides declared victory.
How, you may ask, can everyone claim victory when some of the opposing groups are about as far away as the Earth and moon? The answer: the agreement on internet governance signed in Tunis is open to interpretation. Nearly everyone – the governments of the US and the EU as well as Icann, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, and the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) – are reading into the agreement essentially what they want to read.
Take, for example, the US, which has fought to retain its historic role of managing the internet to the extent of angering one of its biggest economic allies, the EU.
"The document is fabulous," David Gross, ambassador for the bureau of economic and business affairs at the US Department of State and the person who lead the American delegation, said in an interview hours after the agreement was signed. "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."
Now for the EU take. "The role of Icann shouldn't change, but what has to change is the oversight role," said Martin Selmayr, a spokesman for EU Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding, in a telephone interview also hours after the agreement was signed.
As the EU sees it, the US has consented to considering a new oversight body by agreeing to the wording "enhanced cooperation" in the document signed by government delegates. The EU and other countries are demanding "oversight in cooperation and on equal footing", Selmayr said.
And it's not just governments that have produced opposing interpretations. Organisations either directly involved in the daily operations of the internet, such as Icann, or those hoping to have a greater say, such as the ITU, have their own views as well.
"First of all, the agreement has not threatened the security and stability of the core operations of the internet," Icann president and CEO Paul Twomey said. "For users, nothing is going to change from the present situation. This is very good because untried models, which had been discussed, could have been destabilising."
Twomey went on to say that governments need to be heard and that the planned Internet Governance Forum will give them a platform to air their views.
The ITU has a different opinion. Robert Shaw, internet strategy and policy advisor at the ITU, points to powerful wording in the document that suggests a dramatic change – if not an end – to the dominant role the US has played in managing the internet. "There are several paragraphs that call for changes in the way the internet is governed today," he said. "And the US has agreed to these. That's a fact."
The document recognises, for instance, that all governments should have "an equal role and responsibility for internet governance and for ensuring the stability, security and continuity of the internet" and should have a say in the development of "globally applicable principles on public-policy issues associated with the co-ordination and management of critical internet resources." That, said Shaw, "is a definite change over the present situation".
Still, many groups involved in running the internet today, including the Internet Society, the Internet Engineering Task Force and the Number Resource Organization (NRO), as well as big enterprises that rely on the internet to do business, such as Google, Microsoft and Sun, agree with the US and Icann that the internet must retain its bottoms-up approach – and not the top-down approach sought by numerous governments.
"There's definitely been a clash of cultures between those groups running the internet that support the bottoms-up approach and those, mostly governments, that are in favour of the top-down approach," said Daniel Karrenberg, chief scientist at the regional internet registry Ripe Network Coordination Center in Amsterdam. "This summit has clearly shown a need to bring the parties closer together."
NRO chairman Axel Pawlik admitted he was glad the summit was over. "Now it's back to work," he said.
But when Pawlik and the many others who participated in the WSIS talks return to their desks and resume their daily jobs, will it be business as usual? Or put it another way: has anything really changed? Perhaps the best answer to that question is the German word jein, which is a combination of ja for yes and nein for no.
Nothing will change soon, everyone agrees. That's why the US is claiming victory.
But things will change eventually, many experts concede. That's the reason for the EU victory call.
Under the Tunis agreement, one thing that will change is the creation of the Internet Governance Forum, which UN secretary-general Kofi Annan has agreed to launch. The forum is scheduled to meet in Greece for the first time next year. Although the forum itself will have no oversight or decision-making function, some view it as an opportunity to sow the seed for a new internet governance regime.
That regime could come about in different ways, according to Tim Kelly, head of the strategy and policy unit at the ITU. The GAC (Government Advisory Committee), which advises Icann, could be given oversight functions, Kelly said. The GAC, which is made up of several governments, currently has no real decision-making power.
The ITU sees itself as a candidate for an oversight role, too. The secretary-general of the UN body, Yoshio Utsumi, predicted a growing "regionalisation" of the internet in a closing news conference and pointed to the need for an organisation such as the ITU to help govern this new world.
A completely different possibility, Kelly said, is to carve up Icann's domain-name responsibilities. While countries could take over management of the country-code Top Level Domains (ccTLDs), such as .br, .de and .jp, Icann could retain control of the generic Top-Level Domains (gTLDs), such as .com, .org and .net.
Even though all these possibilities and others to come will require plenty of debate, just about everyone agrees the Tunis talks have created a powerful momentum for change.
"We will have a truly international system of managing core internet resources someday, as we do today with other critical infrastructure resources such as the geostationary satellite orbit or the world's radio frequencies," said Robert Shaw. "An international resource requires an international agreement and control. It's inevitable."
The Tunis agreement is available here.