EU Challenges US to Cede Web Control to Global Body

26 October 2005

Many see it as a paradox that the worldwide web - arguably the most democratic mass communications medium the world has known - is controlled, albeit indirectly, by the US government.

The web was originally conceived by Englishman Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 while working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, where one year later he wrote the first web server and client (browser-editor program).

Since then control has passed from Europe to the US, where web affairs are managed by a nonprofit private organization, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) based in Marina del Rey, California.

Although ICANN acknowledges international needs and opinion, it is to all intents and purpose controlled by the US government's power of veto over web decisions - for example, the creation of new web domain suffixes.

The body oversees a database of web addresses and other standards. These ensure that a user keying-in in a www. address will connect to a single website of that name. ICANN procedures are critical to the functioning of the internet.

However, with the growing technological expertise of emergent economies - India, China and others - many nations now contend that a global medium such as the web should not be controlled by a single country.

The European Union has picked up this ball and is running with it. Says Viviane Reding, EU commissioner for Internet and Media Affairs: "There must not be any government involvement in the day-to-day management of the internet, neither by the US government nor by any other government." Her stance reverses the EU's previous endorsement of the status quo.

There is growing worldwide demand that decisions affecting the web come under the jurisdiction of an international body such as the United Nations. The issue will be discussed next month at a UN 'information society' summit meeting in Tunisia.

According to Lee McKnight, an associate professor for information studies at Syracuse University: "Until August, the US had not done anything to upset other governments. Then just before these meetings, it did do something unilaterally."

That "something", seemingly unimportant in itself, set the cat among the pigeons. Earlier this year ICANN tentatively approved a new domain suffix (.xxx) for pornography websites.

In August the US government seemingly gave the nod to this plan, asking ICANN to table an appropriate initiative. But at the eleventh hour the Department of Commerce withdrew its support after receiving thousands of letters of complaint from conservative Christian groups.

Many non-conservative, non-Christian nations are disturbed by this instance of political lobbying within the US influencing a decision with global ramifications.

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff