UNITED NATIONS - International efforts to break down the digital barriers facing the world's poor will backfire if governments fail to work out their differences on the issue of internet governance, diplomatic observers here say.
Many heads of state and technical experts from around the world are due to attend the United Nations Summit for the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis next week, where, among other things, they will try to negotiate the legal and technical future of the internet.
But with the United States unwilling to embrace any changes in the network it helped create in the 1960s, and other nations seeking to alter the current system, indications are that negotiators could pack up without a concrete agreement.
The most contentious among the issues to be discussed at the summit is Washington's role in overseeing the internet's address structure known as "the domain name system" (DNS), which enables millions of computer users around the world to communicate with each other.
Currently, the system is managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), a California-based nonprofit private organisation that works under contract to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Despite certain differences on the issue, both the developing countries' bloc led by China, India, Brazil and others, and the European Union are stressing that the internet should be governed internationally with multiple stakeholders involved in the decision-making process.
While many developing countries want internet governance to be controlled by an international body such as the U.N., the Europeans have proposed what they call a "cooperation model" to deal with Icann. The model points to a "forum" that would allow governments, interested organisations, and industry to discuss internet issues.
But Washington continues to oppose such suggestions, arguing that internet security and stability are best maintained through the current systems of technical controls overseen by Icann.
"As important as internet governance discussions are, I don't think anybody believes that as a result of them there will be one more computer or one more cell phone in rural parts of Africa, South America, Asia or any where else," said David Gross, who has led the U.S. delegation at the previous U.N. meetings on information technology.
The plan of action adopted at the conclusion of the first U.N. summit on the information society held in Geneva in 2003 laid out clear targets for increasing information and communication technologies (ICT) access and internet connections for rural areas, hospitals, libraries and universities in the developing world.
The plan also set targets for online access for local governments, for the availability of content in all languages and for developing primary and secondary school curricula to meet the challenges of the information society.
Developing countries argue that meeting such goals requires changes in internet governance, but the U.S. says the current system is already producing positive results.
"I think, as I look around the world, that a lot of progress has been made in those areas," Gross says. "But of course there is a lot of work still to be done."
While the vast majority of people without access to the internet live in developing countries, there are also millions of people within the developed world who are unable to use the web for economic reasons.
At recent U.N. meetings on information-related issues, diplomats from developing countries have consistently contended that internet governance must be more transparent and inclusive in order to foster economic and social development.
"Internet governance should not be the prerogative of one group of countries or stockholders," Maria Luiza Viotti, a Brazilian diplomat, told a recent forum at U.N. headquarters in New York. "Governments have a stake, and the concerns of developing countries should be taken into account."
But U.S. officials countered this position on the ground that governments' involvement in internet governance in certain countries would cause further erosion of the freedom of expression and independent political opinion.
Michael Gallagher, U.S. President George W. Bush's internet adviser, believes that countries seeking changes in internet governance are seizing on the only "central" part of the system in an effort to exert control.
"They are looking for a handle, thinking that the DNS is the meaning of life," he says. "But the meaning of life lies within their own borders and the policies that they create here."
The European Union and Canada share many of the U.S. concerns over governments' control. But at the same time they also appear to be equally wary of Washington's dominance over internet governance.
Those closely watching the negotiating process say it is too early to suggest that the summit will prove to be a fiasco, yet there is a possibility that it may conclude without any meaningful agreement signed.
"It would be foolhardy and unrealistic to assume that the U.S. would not continue to play a major role in the future governance of the internet," writes Irmran Chaudhry, an information technology expert at the of George Mason University in Virginia.
"It seems implausible the U.S. would cede any ground to a U.N.-sponsored regulatory body," he goes on to say. "In that sense, it is possible that the current debate may be an exercise in futility, because no matter what ultimate proposals are presented to the Secretary-General Kofi Annan, they will be subject to de facto U.S. veto."
Others fear that such a scenario could lead China, Russia, Brazil and other nations to launch their own versions of the internet.
"We have to have a platform where leaders of the world can exercise their thoughts about the internet," Viviane Reding, the European Information Technology Commissioner, told the Guardian newspaper.
"If they have the impression that the internet is dominated by one nation and it does not belong to all the nations, then the result could be that the internet falls apart."
Copyright © 2005 IPS - Inter Press Service