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“We reject kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in rough consensus and a running code.” So goes the informal motto of the Internet Engineering Task Force – the techies who devise the standards behind the Internet and who, in one form or another, have controlled how the network evolves since its inception. Yet this anarchic ethos seems increasingly unsustainable as the Internet spreads into more spheres of society and governments want more control. On November 19, at the United Nations’ World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia, the nation-state roared back into cyberspace.

The major issue at the three-day Tunis meeting, which was supposed to focus on bringing more technology to the Third World, turned out to be who should control the underlying address system of the Internet. Most countries are resentful that the United States oversees the system, viewing it as yet another example of unilateral U.S. power. Like Augustine going to Carthage, where vice and temptation waited, so too did nations arrive in the modern-day city, with an eye for unseating the ruling power of this era.

The United States, on the other hand, was wary of an ambush and launched a massive international lobbying campaign in the weeks before the summit. In the words of a classified diplomatic cable from U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and secretary of commerce Carlos Gutierrez to the British government, sent on November 7 and obtained by this reporter: “a new intergovernmental structure would most likely become an obstacle to global Internet access for all our citizens.”

But whether public access or the power of nation-states was first in mind, the main outcome of the summit was a 20-page document called the “Tunis Agenda for the Information Society” that all countries could use to trumpet victory. The United States hailed it because there was no change to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the private, nonprofit organization set up by the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1998 to administer the day-to-day operation of the domain name system. Meanwhile, other governments returned to their capitals content that a process was formally begun to place Internet matters on a multilateral, intergovernmental footing.

In truth, both sides are right to claim a win. The agreement calls for the creation of an “Internet Governance Forum” to be established by the United Nations before mid-2006. It will not have any binding powers but will be a way to continue the dialogue that the UN summit began. Stakeholders other than governments – such as industry and so-called “civil society” groups that advocate special causes like free speech – will be a part of the process too. The forum will not be limited to discussing the names-and-addresses issue but will examine more mainstream matters involving cyberspace, such as spam and network security, that do not fit comfortably in existing intergovernmental organizations.

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