The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Not many users of the internet are aware that a California-based non-profit organization, Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, maintains the master list of generic domains and country suffixes. In other words, suffixes like .com, .org, .in,.uk and so on are all regulated by ICANN. At one remove, this means that the United States of America has the control over the web since technically the ICANN comes under the jurisdiction and the regulation of the US department of commerce. Thus in a bizarre paradox, the technological innovation which has brought down all national boundaries and has created the global village is actually regulated by the government of the world's most powerful nation state. It would be a chilling prospect had it not been for the fact that the US government has never used its regulatory hand to control the internet. Yet, it remains a theoretical possibility that the US could regulate the Net, and could even block a nation state's access to the Net. But it did not contemplate such a move even in the aftermath of 9/11, the Afghan war and the invasion of Iraq. Even without taking such a drastic step, the US department of commerce could propose taxes, impose censorship, ban gambling and so forth.

The just-concluded World Information Summit in Tunis witnessed a challenge to this position of the US. The European Union, together with China, Brazil, Cuba and Iran, raised the question of the US's control at the summit. The challenge was couched in the language of extending the new telecom technologies to everyone across the globe. The proponents favoured a multilateral system. The EU and some of its allies on the issue made the challenge into a threat when it said that it would withdraw support for the current domain name system registration. Such a threat, if it ever becomes a reality, would lead to the collapse of the internet. There could be arguments in favour of many internets, but such a free market in cyberspace would need another technological leap. As things stand, many internets to talk to each other requires a universally accepted name-resolution system. On the other hand, there was widespread support for continuing with a system that works. The US further argued that the creation of a multilateral body would only open up cyberspace to political bickering and dispute.

The summit concluded on a compromise. It was considered wise to let the internet be dependent on the goodwill of the US rather than on the chaos that could emanate out of multilateralism. But as a sop to the proponents of multilateralism, the Internet Governance Forum was formed. The forum would consist of national governments, corporations and NGOs but would have 'no involvement in day-to-day or technical operations'. The IGF will act as a safety valve whereas the US will retain the control it has enjoyed. The more the world changes, the more it remains the same.

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