TUNIS, Tunisia – A U.N. technology summit opened Wednesday after an 11th-hour agreement that leaves the United States with ultimate oversight of the main computers that direct the Internet's flow of information, commerce and dissent.
A lingering and vocal struggle over the Internet's plumbing and its addressing system has overshadowed the summit's original intent: to address ways to expand communications technologies to poorer parts of the world.
Negotiators from more than 100 countries agreed late Tuesday to leave the United States in charge, through a quasi-independent body called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN.
That averted a U.S.-EU showdown that threatened to derail the so-called World Summit on the Information Society.
"If the Internet had been developed in Australia, I don't think we would have had so much heat on this discussion," ICANN chief Paul Twomey, an Australian, remarked of the tension surrounding the U.S. control of the Internet.
The computers under dispute control Internet traffic by acting as its master directories so Web browsers and e-mail programs can find other computers.
Although Pakistan and other countries sought a takeover of that system by an international body such as the United Nations, negotiators ultimately agreed, as time ran out, to a create an open-ended international forum for raising important Internet issues. The forum, however, would have no binding authority.
The onus now lies with the developing world to bring in not just opinions, but investment to expand the Internet to their benefit, said U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Michael D. Gallagher.
David Gross, the U.S. State Department's top official on Internet policy, told reporters that despite the U.S. hand in ICANN, Internet governance was not the provenance of one specific country.
"The term ... is quite broad. It is very inclusive," he said, trying to dismiss claims that the U.S. is holding onto its position as the arbiter of the Internet.
Negotiators had met since Sunday to reach a deal on a draft declaration that world leaders are expected to ratify before the three-day gathering ends Friday.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, Senegal's Abdulaye Wade and Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi were among those scheduled to attend. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fiery populist unpopular in Washington, was due to fly to the summit Wednesday, organizers said.
Officials say the forum to be created under Tuesday's accord would give nations a stronger say in how the Internet works, including perhaps spurring the availability of domain suffixes in Chinese, Urdu and other languages.
Currently, though names partially in another language are possible, the suffix — the ".com" part — remains in English.
The group also could address issues not currently covered by ICANN, threats such as spam and cybercrime.
The new group, the Internet Governance Forum, would start operating next year with its first meeting opened by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Left unsettled, however, was whether the U.N. would ultimately administer that forum, Gross said.
Viviane Reding, EU commissioner for information society and media, said the agreement paved the way for better Internet governance.
"This agreement was possible because of the strong belief of all democratic nations that enhanced international cooperation is the best way to make progress towards guaranteeing the freedom of the Internet around the globe and also to enhance transparency and accountability in decisions affecting the architecture of the Web," she said.