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Internet governance: A chatty whimper?
By Scott Bradner
The second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) just finished up in Tunis and the surprising thing is how little actually happened considering the buildup and potential for trouble.
WSIS was proposed by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) (http://www.itu.int) in 1998 as a summit meeting to examine the "the interpenetration between issues of telecommunication development and those of economic, social and cultural development, as well as the impact of such interpenetration on social structures" of countries while at the same time "recognizing that ITU is the organization best able to seek appropriate ways to provide for development of the telecommunication sector geared to economic, social and cultural development." While not everyone might agree with the latter recognition, the impact, current and future, of information technology on society is unquestioned and much worried about.
With the support of the United Nations the ITU decided to hold WSIS (http://www.itu.int/wsis/) in two phases. The first phase was a WSIS meeting held in December 2003 in Geneva. That meeting led to the UN forming a Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG - http://www.wgig.org/) to explore the issues and produce a report (http://www.wgig.org/docs/WGIGREPORT.pdf) to be used as input to the second phase of WSIS, which was the just concluded Tunis meeting.
There were some very hot issues going into the Tunis meeting, with the hottest being the management and oversight of the core Internet technical support functions currently performed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN <ALL CAPS!!!>) under a contract and supervision from the US Government. A lot of the other world governments felt that it was hi time that the US relinquished sole control over these functions and maybe time to replace ICANN with another organization, maybe even the ITU, that would be more controlled by governments and responsive to their interests.
The US basically said "no," they would not let go and, after a tense preparatory meeting in Tunis just before the formal WSIS meeting was to start, basically got its way. ICANN will continue to be the top of the pyramid for domain names and IP address assignments under the sole supervision of the US government. As part of the agreement the UN will create an "Internet Governance Forum" IGF that will have "no binding authority" but would debate Internet governance issues and advise ICANN and others of its deliberations. This seems fully status quo but some countries claim that the US agreed to eventually relinquish sole control, a claim that the US disagrees with.
Much of the final WSIS agreement ("Tunis Agenda for the Information Society" (http://www.itu.int/wsis/documents/doc_multi.asp?lang=en&id=2267|0) is dedicated to the same type of issue that dominates most reports of international summits -- the inequitable distribution of some resource, in this case information technology, among parts of the world.
A lot of words were said about a lot of topics in Tunis but, when the meeting ended, the expected fireworks had fizzled and the status quo had been preserved. Hardly a monumental outcome for the over 15,000 folk who gathered in the North African heat and traffic (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/11/14/wsis_blog_three/). And to think that the IGF will soon provide more opportunities to do more of the same.
disclaimer: Harvard presents numerous opportunities for summit-type meetings to fizzle or to sizzle but this review of WSIS in Tunis is my own.