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The original grand goal of the United Nations’ World Summit on the Information Society, set for next week in Tunis, was to devise a strategy for lifting the developing world into the information age. But another issue has risen to the fore: the European Union has joined other countries in seeking multi-national control of the naming system on the Internet, a job now done by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the California-based organization that oversees the Internet’s domain name and addressing system.

All of this discussion over back-end architectures, however, misses the point of the U.N. summit, which should focus on basic questions of access, security, and censorship, according to several U.S. observers.

“I just think it’s an amazing collective hallucination that anyone thinks domain names are the point of entry for government regulation, and that debates over their management are worth creating another U.S./rest-of-the-world rift. This is just so 1995,” says Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and chair of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University.

“I defy anyone to tell me why domain name management is anything higher than 10 on the list of things we should care about with the governance of the Internet.”

Instead, Zittrain would like to see the summitteers do something constructive like pledging to abstain from censoring or filtering Internet content as service comes to new corners of the as-yet-unplugged world. “I would love if [the summit] actually focused on a declaration of principles for the provision of Internet service, emphasizing that neutral carriage of bits is the gold standard,” he says.

The row, which has been simmering for years, hit a new level in July 2005, after a U.N. working group recommended that a formal U.N. body comprised of political appointees from around the world replace ICANN. In response, the United States made clear that it is strongly opposed to a global body taking over.

ICANN oversees the domain name and numerical addressing system that keeps the medium humming and allows Web and email users around the world to get where they are going. The organization operates under contract from the U.S. Department of Commerce, hence, it is not directly authorized by the U.S. Congress. Nor is ICANN the subject of any treaty, which would provide a degree of power to treaty signatories from other nations.

Before the EU recently declared that it wanted a say in the name-and-address process, other countries demanding such a role included China, Iran, and Cuba–nations not known for their adherence to principles of free speech.

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