Petros Giannakouris  /  AP
Nitin Desai, head of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Athens, Greece, on Friday, Oct. 28, 2006. Desai will head the IGF conference from Oct. 30 till Nov. 2, organized by the United Nations and billed as the world's first global town hall meeting on the future of the Internet. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
updated 10/30/2006 1:44:42 PM ET 2006-10-30T18:44:42

A top EU official praised the United States' commitment to pull back from its historic oversight of the Internet as a worldwide conference on the network's future opened Monday.

EU Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding said she hoped last month's deal would lead to eventual independence for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the non-profit agency in charge of the Internet's key traffic-management technologies.

"We are very satisfied with the work of ICANN. What Europe was objecting was the government oversight of ICANN," Reding told The Associated Press. "I think ICANN is doing a perfectly good job as it is. Just leave it alone."

Ahead of a U.N. summit on information technology last year, Europe insisted that the U.S. government cede responsibility of policing the Internet to some sort of new combination of governments and the private sector. The United States ultimately kept sole control — through ICANN — and agreed to this week's forum instead.

Last month, the Commerce Department said it would retain oversight of ICANN for another three years, although it agreed to be less actively engaged. Reding called that "the first step in the right direction."

"We do not need governments to have hands on ICANN. That's why we have discussed this for years with the Americans in order to leave ICANN free, to leave ICANN independent, without government oversight," she said. "We will monitor very closely what will happen in the next months and years and hope that ICANN can be independent."

The United States and other governments, she added, should focus instead on threats like spam and cybercrime.

Some 1,200 academics, policy makers, technology experts, user representatives and other delegates are attending the Internet Governance Forum, which runs through Thursday in this resort near Athens. Discussion topics are expected to include ways to ease current U.S. control of the Internet and improve international cooperation to fight Internet crimes like banking fraud and child pornography.

"This is an opportunity for a dialogue of a very large scale," Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said in opening the forum. "Everyone's input is needed to keep the Internet free and safe."

Event organizers said the forum would not make recommendations but was aimed purely at starting a long-term dialogue and making such discussions more inclusive.

In an interview Friday, the U.N.'s top Internet official, Nitin Desai, predicted that Asia will drive a massive online expansion by the end of the decade, propelled by improved cell phone technology and expansion of computer-sharing schemes within communities.

"The big expansion in the Internet in the next five years is going to take place in developing countries," Desai said. "A lot of it in countries which are not English speaking ... where people don't even know the Latin alphabet, for instance, China."

Desai, a special adviser to the U.N. secretary-general, called on better cooperation between government and law-enforcement agencies to prevent overly restrictive Web policing, adding that the billion Internet users who are decent citizens should not be punished for the transgressions by the few.

"Criminals travel on the road. Therefore let's have a rule which says no one should get on the road without first checking at the police station. Would you do that? Of course you wouldn't. ... The important thing is not to overreact."

Desai described the Athens forum, which organizers plan to turn into an annual event, as a global "town hall meeting" that would bring together professionals who rarely talk to one another, at a time when the profile of the average Internet user is changing.

"This is a medium which in five years' time will have users who are not your classical Internet users. These are not research professionals in developed countries. ... It's going to be a lay user. It's going to be a user in China, in Arabic speaking countries, in India," he said.

Desai said Web-enabled cell phones would have a massive impact in the developing world.

"Once you get that, the cost of access won't be more than the cost of using a mobile phone," he said. "India is talking in terms of half a billion people having mobile phones, in a matter of barely five years."

Greek organizers said the next IGF meetings would be held in Brazil next year, in India in 2008 and Egypt in 2009.

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