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Net Governance Deal May Not End Debate

Appeared on the BBC News on November 17, 2005 as Net Control Debate Rumbles On

After two years of frequently acrimonious debate, delegates to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis reached a last minute agreement on Tuesday that at first glance appears to resolve the debate over the regulation of the Internet’ s domain name system.  

U.S. control over the Internet’ s technical functions through the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the California-based non-profit entity that ultimately answers to the U.S. government, had emerged as an increasingly contentious issue. Led by the European Union, much of the world lobbied for a new multilateral approach that would limit the influence of any one country.

Given the divergent views, an agreement seemed unlikely, yet just hours before the summit was scheduled to open, delegates arrived at a deal with leaves the U.S. in control with ICANN retaining its role as manager of the domain name system.  

The one significant change to the current framework is the creation of a new Internet Governance Forum.  The forum, to be established by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, will feature representatives from government, business, and civil society.  It will first meet this spring in Greece with a mandate to address a broad range of Internet issues including governance, spam, cybercrime, and privacy.

The U.S. was unsurprisingly elated at the outcome, celebrating its continued control and downplaying the likely impact of the governance forum.  The developments also left delegates here wondering why the Europeans experienced a sudden change of heart and speculating as to what comes next for the Internet governance issue.

The answer to the first question likely lies in the respective strength of each side’ s bargaining position.  

The U.S. simply had a very strong hand and played it well.  With its current control, changes to the Internet governance structure ultimately require U.S. agreement.  In the days leading up to the Tunis summit, the U.S. had loudly indicated that it was not prepared to make concessions.   Indeed, it adopted a very hard line by even questioning its commitment to independence for country-code domains such as Canada’ s dot-ca domain. Without a credible threat – the only such threat being the creation of alternate domain name system — the U.S. was able to maintain its position and ultimately force everyone else to deal.

Moreover, the EU may not have been as committed to change as it publicly indicated.  While there is no doubt that some European countries strongly believed in change, it seems likely that others were more comfortable with the current system.  Given the opportunity for compromise, the EU decided to back down and accept a deal that all could live with.

The EU may have also felt that the agreement is not as lopsided as it might otherwise appear.  Although it is true that the U.S. retained its control, the EU can point to several aspects of the deal that address its concerns and foreshadow future change.

For example, the agreement recognizes that individual countries retain sovereignty over Internet-related public policy issues and that “all governments should have an equal role and responsibility, for international Internet governance and for ensuring the stability, security and continuity of the Internet.”

Moreover, country-code domains are promised independence as the agreement states that “countries should not be involved in decisions regarding another country’ s country-code Top-Level Domain (ccTLD). Their legitimate interests, as expressed and defined by each country, in diverse ways, regarding decisions affecting their ccTLDs, need to be respected, upheld and addressed via a flexible and improved framework and mechanisms.”

In fact, even the Internet’ s Regional Internet Registries, which oversee the allocation of IP addresses on a regional basis, obtained guarantees for “the national interest and rights of countries in that particular region to manage its own Internet resources.”

Not only does the Tunis agreement address many global concerns, but it also points to the future of the Internet governance debate.  Armed with these provisions, countries will look to the newly established governance forum as the venue to raise grievances and pursue continued reform.

Although the U.S. suggests that the governance forum is non-binding and relatively powerless, it actually appears to look much like the WSIS itself.  Both are multilateral, multi-stakeholder, non-binding, U.N. created, and able to address a wide range of Internet and technology policy issues.

Notwithstanding its limitations, the WSIS succeeded in putting Internet governance squarely on the map.  As its obvious successor, the governance forum has the potential to emerge as the platform to allow for a continued emphasis on Internet regulation concerns.  Delegates may have resolved the issue for now, but the debate appears to be far from over.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

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