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November 20, 2005

ITU head foresees internet Balkanization

The internet could look very different in a few years' time, with various countries splintering off into their own locally managed internets, the head of the International Telecommunications Union suggested on Friday.

By CBR Staff Writer

As the World Summit on the Information Society wound down in Tunisia, ITU secretary-general Yoshio Utsumi said that regionalization has started already and will continue, and the internet will become a little bit different network.

The internet is developing, Utsumi said at a press conference at WSIS in Tunis. It may continue to be the current internet or it may go into a very different model — the regional internets communicate with each other.

Smiling and speaking in his usual diplomatic manner, it was easy to overlook the fact that he seemed to be describing a situation not greatly unlike the outcome that some US-based commentators have described as the nuclear option.

The internet need not be the so-called one internet controlled by one center, so regionalization is already getting started and I suspect in few years the scenery of the internet will be a quite different one, Utsumi said.

His comments appeared inspired by the fact that the WSIS, a United Nations discussion of issues including internet governance, reluctantly decided not to radically change the status quo of internet management led by the US.

The internet has very few resources that lend themselves easily to centralized control. What it does have are the domain name system and IP address allocation system, which are managed centrally by ICANN, overseen by the US government.

The ITU was among those encouraging UN member states to demand multilateralism in the ICANN oversight process. In effect, ITU wanted ICANN’s job, and many nations wanted the UN to replace the US as ICANN’s overseer.

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But WSIS, faced with an almost completely unmovable US policy of unilateralism, instead reached consensus to create a new multilateral Internet Governance Forum that would have an advisory role but no oversight powers.

While early interpretation of the so-called Tunis Agenda, the document that contains the governance proposals that was finalized late Tuesday, seemed to universally suggest that the status quo would remain, some are now suggesting that is not the case.

Tim Kelly, head of the ITU’s policy and strategy unit, held a press conference in Tunis in which he suggested that the US had ceded some ground to multilateralism, on the matter of managing domain names and IP addresses.

We no longer have an asymmetric situation, in which the US government has one responsibility and every other government has another responsibility, Kelly said. We now have a symmetric situation where all countries work together on an equal footing.

When asked whether this means the US had given up its ability to veto decisions, Kelly ducked the question, referring the reporter to paragraph 68 of the Tunis Agenda, saying: I will leave it to your interpretation to whether the US has a veto.

Paragraph 68 reads: We recognise that all governments should have an equal role and responsibility, for international Internet governance and for ensuring the stability, security and continuity of the Internet.

Making the point more explicit, paragraph 63 of the Agenda states: Countries should not be involved in decisions regarding another country’s country-code Top-Level Domain (ccTLD).

Currently, the US is involved in decisions regarding all other countries’ ccTLDs, by virtue of the fact that it has to authorize all changes made to the DNS’s root zone file by ICANN — adding and removing ccTLDs, for example.

On the other hand, the Agenda also states that: The IGF would have no oversight function and would not replace existing arrangements, mechanisms, institutions or organizations.

A plain reading suggests that the US can’t interfere with decisions relating to ccTLDs, but neither can the IGF, in whatever form it ultimately takes.

ICANN president Paul Twomey said Wednesday that paragraph 63 does not change how ICANN does business, but admitted that there may be some change in how the US Department of Commerce authorizes certain ICAN decisions.

Some commentators believe the apparent lack of firm resolutions on the future of ICANN means the debate has been extended for five years — the length of time the IGF is supposed to run before the UN revisits the idea to see if it worked.

The real result of WSIS is that the debate over ICANN and Internet governance will be prolonged for another five years, said Syracuse University professor Milton Mueller, a member of the Internet Governance Project think-tank. The US can claim a short-term victory but faces a long-term war of attrition that will gradually erode its position.

Utsumi allowed that WSIS may be revisited, saying that in five years there could conceivably be a third phase to the Summit.

The biggest fear before WSIS was that a lack of agreement about multilateralism would lead to the nuclear option of Balkanization, where dissenting countries break from the DNS tree and plant their own roots, diluting the internet’s end-to-end interoperability.

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