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Critics Balk at Efforts to Place Internet in Global Grip

A global summit scheduled in December may result in a proposal to put the Internet under United Nations control — an idea that has met solid resistance from the United States.

"There are some countries that have been very adamant to get their governments to play a bigger role in Internet management," said Ambassador David Gross, the State Department’s coordinator for international communications and information policy. He is leading the U.S. delegation to the World Summit on the Information Society (search), scheduled to meet Dec. 10-12 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Gross said that while the U.S. supports greater access for all nations to the Internet, it will resist any efforts to take the Net out of the private sector.

"We will continue to fight hard to ensure that the Internet remains a balanced enterprise among all stakeholders — one of these stakeholders is government, but it is one of many stakeholders," Gross told Foxnews.com, adding that "it must be private sector-led. That is very important to us."

The WSIS, sponsored by the International Telecommunications Union (search), the United Nations' key agency on telecommunications, will bring together more than 50 heads of state, along with an expected 5,000 to 6,000 government, business and non-profit representatives from across the globe to discuss in part “the yawning telecommunications gap between emerging economies and the developed world.”

The summit’s goal is to achieve consensus on a draft declaration of principles and draft plan of action, which reportedly includes a recommendation to place the governance of the Internet under the ITU or another body created by U.N. member nations, say observers. This is one of several provisions now being debated in contentious preliminary discussions.

“Standardization is one of the essential building blocks of the Information Society,” reads the most recent draft of the WSIS Draft Declaration of Principles. “There should be particular emphasis on the development and adoption of international standards.”

The effort for global control of the Internet is reportedly led by China, which allows its own citizens online access, but it is tightly controlled by a giant firewall and monitored by government surveillance.

China has so far been joined in its efforts by representatives of Syria, Egypt, Vietnam and South Africa, said Ronald Koven, European representative for the World Press Freedom Committee (search), an international media watchdog based in the United States.

Other reports indicate that Russia, India, Saudi Arabia and Brazil may be on board, too.

Supporters of global governance say that the Internet should be administered and managed by a governmental body, with uniform standards for security and better access for poorer countries. They point to WSIS statistics indicating that only one-third of developing countries' inhabitants are Internet users. They say fewer than 3 percent of Africans can even access telecommunications of any kind.

Though the WSIS organization does not advocate specific plans for global management of the Net, it does suggest support for global principles. “The summit aims to jumpstart and speed access and adoption of new technologies through active collaboration and commitment from all,” said a WSIS information brief on its Web site, www.wsis.org.

Currently, the International Corporation of Assigned Network and Numbers (search), a non-profit corporation with an international board of directors, manages Internet Protocol space allocation, domain names and root server system functions. It does not have content or security control functions.

Critics of the global Internet idea say certain nations like China want to take away ICANN’s duties and place them under governmental auspices, along with increased control over security and content, placing freedom of press and individual freedom of expression at serious risk.

“Those governments don’t have any democracy or free speech, it’s dangerous and we’re trying to stop it,” said Julio Munoz, executive director of the Inter American Press Association in Miami. “Of course we are concerned they will try to manipulate the free flow of information.”

He said his member organizations, which include Latin American publishers and journalists, are nervous about a potential crackdown on their freedoms resulting from any move toward Internet governance. He said they see it as a backdoor for subverting the freedom of the press as a whole.

Even if no consensus is reached on the WSIS plan of action, IAPA is concerned that governments back home will use the proposals to restrict the freedoms they have fought for so bitterly.

“We’re going to send a delegation there — to try and defend the press,” said Munoz, who recalled previously unsuccessful attempts in the 1970s and 1980s for U.N.-led media standards.

Peter Linton, a spokesman for the European Internet Foundation (search), which works closely with the Capitol Hill-based Internet Education Foundation, said he would be surprised if the U.S. and European nations were not firmly against the Chinese-led movement for global controls.

“I know the U.S. government has said it would do everything it could to prevent this,” he said. “I cannot speak for the European Commission, but I would suspect it would look at it with a jaundiced eye as well.”

Because so little agreement exists so far on what exactly should be in the declaration of principles, much less the plan of action, there appears to be little confidence that a consensus on Internet governance, which currently includes a reaffirmation of the United Nations' Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (search) — the right of free expression — for the Internet, will be achieved.

Debate has also centered on new intellectual property standards and special technology funding for poor nations.

President Bush is not scheduled to attend the summit, which will be followed by another meeting in Tunisia in November 2005.

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