updated 7/14/2005 9:16:55 PM ET 2005-07-15T01:16:55

A unilateral decision by the United States to indefinitely retain oversight of the Internet's main traffic-directing computers prompted concerns Friday that the global telecommunications network could eventually splinter.

"This seems like an extension of American security in the aftermath of 9-11," said John Strand, a Denmark-based technology consultant. "People will ask: 'Do the Americans want to control the Internet?'"

Washington's decision, announced Thursday, departs from previously stated U.S. policy.

Many countries favor gradually releasing oversight of the Internet's so-called "root servers" to an international body, and a showdown on the issue could come in November at a U.N. information society summit to be held in Tunisia. A U.N. report this month on Internet governance is expected to address the issue.

Michael D. Gallagher, an assistant secretary at the U.S. Commerce Department, said in announcing the policy shift Thursday that it was a response to growing security threats and increased reliance on the Internet globally for communications and commerce.

But the explanation did little to allay fears that the United States is overstepping its boundaries and locking its grip on the Internet, which as history's most powerful communications tool lets people do everything from sell secondhand shoes to promote Jihad or criticize authoritarian regimes.

Patrik Linden, a spokesman for the foundation that runs the Swedish national domain .se, called the U.S. announcement "rather confrontational" but said the move was what a lot of Internet experts thought Washington had always intended.

A Japanese government official said the declaration was sure to provoke debate.

"When the Internet is being increasingly utilized for private use, by businesses and so forth, there is a societal debate about whether it's befitting to have one country maintaining checks on that," said Masahiko Fujimoto of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications' data communications division.

The "root servers" in question — 13 computers located mostly in the United States — are the Internet's master directories. They tell Web browsers and e-mail programs how to direct traffic, and Internet users the world over interact with them every day, though most without knowing it.

Robert Shaw, an policy adviser with the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union, said he understood the basis for the U.S. decision: Root servers and other address-resolving computers lower down the traffic-management chain are vital and merit protecting just as much as cities, water supplies and highways.

"Many governments are legitimately concerned that another country has ultimate control of basically their communications infrastructure," he said. Some countries have pressed to move oversight of the root servers to an international body such as the ITU, a United Nations group.

Though physically in private hands, the root servers contain government-approved lists of the 260 or so Internet suffixes, such as ".com," ".net" and country designators like ".fr" for France or ".no" for Norway.

In 1998, the Commerce Department selected a private organization with international board members, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, to decide what goes on those lists.

But Thursday's declaration means the department will keep control over that process rather than ceding it to ICANN as originally intended, though the United States said ICANN would retain day-to-day operational control.

Naji Haddad, a Lebanese owner of a Web business, believes the U.S. decision will splinter the Internet.

"The announcement will definitely drive countries and organizations toward creating private solutions similar to what is currently offered by New.net and Walid.com (alternative naming systems), which will result in fracturing the global Internet into several networks," Haddad said.

In a worst-case scenario, countries refusing to accept U.S. control could establish their own separate versions of the Domain Name System, thereby making addresses in some regions unreachable in others.

The U.S. government has historically played the role of overseer because it funded much of the Internet's early development. And while it is not known to have interfered in any major sense with traffic-routing affecting other countries, that does not ease concerns that such interference could occur.

"It's not going to work in the long run to have the USA deciding everything by themselves," said Patrik Faltstrom, one of Sweden's foremost Internet experts.

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