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EU takes swipe at U.S. Internet oversight

The European Commission on Friday took a swipe at U.S. oversight of the Internet but offered no concrete alternatives, in advance of an international summit on how the Internet should be run.
/ Source: Reuters

The European Commission on Friday took a swipe at U.S. oversight of the Internet but offered no concrete alternatives, in advance of an international summit on how the Internet should be run.

A U.N. report has proposed a multinational approach as a more democratic and clearer way of running the Internet.

The controversy centers around the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a California-based non-profit company set up in 1998.

ICANN doles out Internet suffixes such as the familiar .com, country suffixes such as .uk, and newer suffixes such as .tv, .biz or .eu. It authorizes changes to the “root zone file,” which matches those domains with numerical addresses.

The U.S. Commerce Department has ultimate control of the root zone file, and Washington made clear recently it intends to maintain that role.

The U.S. Commerce Department was expected to surrender its control of ICANN, but said in July it would “maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file.”

Europe cries 'foul'
Europe cried “foul,” arguing Washington changed the rules of the game and plans to keep permanent control of the system.

“There was an agreement that the Department of Commerce control would be phased out but this summer the United States announced they would maintain this oversight function,” a Commission official said.

A second European official added: “We just say this needs to be addressed in a more co-operative way ... under public policy principles.”

Both officials asked not to be identified.

The European Union will try to reach agreement at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis on Wednesday and Thursday. But the United States has said it will not agree to any changes.

As matters stand, for example, if a country wants to change some aspects of its national top level domain, such as .nl for the Netherlands, that decision must be approved first by ICANN and then by a Commerce Department official.

The European Commission wants to take the Commerce Department out of the loop, but it is vague about what should replace that.

Pressed, European Commission officials referred reporters to its principles, which say that “the role of governments ... should be mainly focused on principle issues of public policy, excluding any involvement in the day-to-day operations.”

But to American ears that sounds like replacing what they call the “light touch” of American Internet regulation with potential interference from upwards of 200 countries.

“We don’t really see how an organization can have oversight and final veto control and not have an impact on day-to-day activities,” said David McGuire of the non-government Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C.

“We don’t think it’s optimal for any government to be directly involved in the oversight management,” of ICANN.

He said the U.S. government has never reversed an ICANN decision and eventually the organization should stand on its own two feet.