NEW YORK – A battle over the Internet is brewing.
The United Nations next week will hold the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunisia, at which national representatives will discuss strategies to bridge the "digital divide" and harness information and communication technologies.
But many observers say the meeting is really about control of the Internet.
Click in the video box to the right for a report by FOX News' Eric Shawn.
The Internet is currently run by a non-governmental organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), established by the United States in 1998 to take over activities that had been performed for 30 years by professor Jon Postel in California.
ICANN manages the current domain-registration system, which means it decides who gets Web addresses ending in ".com," ".net," or ".info," as well as which governmental entities operate national country-code suffixes, such as ".uk" for Great Britain.
ICANN also runs the up-to-12-digit Internet Protocol (IP) numbers that every computer needs to have in order to be recognized by others on the Internet. Since only about 4 billion IP numbers can currently be accommodated, it has to make sure there's no duplication.
According to ICANN, the Internet is in use by over 1 billion people. About 76 million second-level domain names — such as "foxnews.com" — have been registered and 2 billion IP addresses have been allocated.
The Internet was developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the U.S. military and American universities under the auspices of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The European Union has blasted ICANN, withdrawn its support from the domain-registration system and called for giving other countries control of it.
ICANN's attempt at privatization and self-governance three years ago was unsuccessful, so the United States decided to hold on to it a little bit longer. ICANN currently operates under the loose direction of the U.S. Department of Commerce. That contract expires next year.
At the WSIS summit next week, countries such as Brazil, China, Cuba, and Iran are expected to call for the creation of an international body to govern the Internet. Nations such as Libya and Rwanda are among others supporting more U.N. participation in ICANN.
They mainly want what the EU is calling a "new cooperation model" — essentially multi-governmental oversight of ICANN.
"Right now, the status quo is sort of an awkward status quo," Hans Klein, an associate professor of public policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told FOXNews.com.
"If you look past the hype, the U.S. is saying, and not unreasonably, if every government gets involved, it could really politicize things. And that's true -- that's the downside … you're stuck between a rock and a hard place. Things are more efficient if one government controls it but that's make everybody uncomfortable. You get everybody involved, you get stuck with a bunch of different committees and it becomes less effective."
Klein, who will attend the summit next week, said the best option now seems to be a weak internationalization of ICANN.
"I think with the internationalization, you kind of dilute any one country's will or perspective," he said. "I think the internationalization would bestow the legitimacy that ICANN needs and I think you can internationalize it in a way that doesn't render ICANN hopelessly politicized and hopefully bureaucratic."
Annan: This is No U.N. Power Grab
But the United States and some other governments, while acknowledging ICANN isn't perfect and some kinks need to be worked out, are worried that internationalization could threaten the Internet's ability to serve as a medium of free expression. They fear it would subject the Internet to censorship by countries that are also U.N. members.
"From a public-interest perspective, any direct government involvement in the Internet's technical management is less than optimal," according to a policy brief issued by the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based non-profit advocacy group.
"The Internet's success as a platform for speech and political organization can be largely accredited to the fact that the technological underpinning of the global network has not been politicized," the brief continues. "Although U.S. public interest advocates understand the concerns of world leaders who feel the United States plays too large a role in Internet oversight, we strongly disagree with the notion that the way to 'solve' that problem is to exponentially increase the number of governments involved in the process."
"For all the criticism of the United States, it must be noted that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which oversees ICANN, has never vetoed a decision made by the body, which includes representatives from every region of the world," states the brief.
The Information Technology Association of America, a technology-industry trade group, had similar concerns.
"In advocating greater government involvement in governance of the Internet, the European Union has pleased countries like China, Iran, Syria and Cuba, but left the U.S., Canada, Japan and other democratic countries agog," Harris Miller, president of the ITAA, said in a statement. "In attempting to act as an advocate for developing nations, the EU has instead done little more than compromise its own common sense."
In an Oct. 31 editorial, The New York Times also argued for ICANN to continue to be under the supervision of the United States for the best interest of everyone.
"Ideally, perhaps, a single nation should not control the essential workings of the Internet — notably the regulation of who gets which name and what the various 'dot' addresses mean. But United States control is working," the Times said.
But U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan insists the United Nations does not want to run the Internet and cited a growing amount of "misinformation" about the issue.
"One mistaken notion is that the United Nations wants to 'take over,' police or otherwise control the Internet," Annan wrote in an editorial in The Washington Post this week. "Nothing could be farther from the truth. The United Nations wants only to ensure the Internet's global reach, and that effort is at the heart of this summit."
Annan noted, however, that while spam and cybercrime are being dealt with "in a dispersed and fragmented manner," the Internet's infrastructure is being managed in an "informal but effective collaboration" among private businesses, academic groups and others.
"But developing countries find it difficult to follow all these processes and feel left out of Internet governance structures," Annan said, adding that "many" say authority over the Internet should be shared with the international community.
"The United States, which has exercised its oversight responsibilities fairly and honorably, recognizes that other governments have legitimate public policy and sovereignty concerns, and that efforts to make the governance arrangements more international should continue," he continued.
U.S.: Hands Off ICANN
Last month, a group of lawmakers, including Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., sent a letter to the Commerce and State departments, urging continued U.S. oversight of the Internet. Upton is the chairman of the House Energy Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.
"Given the Internet's importance to the world's economy, it is essential that the underlying domain name system of the Internet remains stable and secure," the letter states. "As such, the United States should take no action that would have the potential to adversely impact the effective and efficient operation of the domain name system. Therefore, the United States should maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file."
Congressional Internet Caucus co-chairmen Rick Boucher, D-Va., and Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., as well as Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., introduced a resolution that says the current Internet governance system is working well and that control of the root server responsible for overseeing global Internet addresses should remain in the United States, with the Commerce Department loosely overseeing ICANN.
"It is incumbent upon the United States and other responsible governments to send clear signals to the marketplace that the current structure of oversight and management of the Internet's domain name and addressing service works, and will continue to deliver tangible benefits to Internet users worldwide in the future," states the measure, H. Con. Res. 268.
It also says the continued success of the Internet is dependent upon continued private sector leadership and input from users around the world.
"Whereas in allowing people all around the world freely to exchange information, communicate with one another, and facilitate economic growth and democracy, the Internet has enormous potential to enrich and transform human society," the resolution states.
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who is in charge of the Senate's investigation into the U.N. Oil-for-Food scandal, said the Internet governance plan to give the U.N. more control smacks of anti-Americanism.
"You may be angry with us about the war in Iraq, but we are not going to let you take over the Internet. You can't do that," Coleman said. "We can't allow concern that folks may have about other things that the U.S. does and doesn't do to really have the great potential for strangling this expansive vehicle for new growth and new opportunities."