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Hands off the Net

November 17, 2005

THE INTERNET may not have been invented by Al Gore, but it was conceived, born and raised in the United States. And thanks to the foresight of its original federal benefactors, the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Net has evolved and improved largely under the guidance of technical experts, not political appointees or civil servants.

Still, the Internet's inner workings remain to some degree under U.S. control. And as the Internet has grown in importance around the world, more foreign governments have called for an end to the United States' exclusive oversight. Even longtime allies such as Britain have joined the chorus in recent months, leaving the U.S. alone in supporting the status quo.

On Wednesday, the dispute cooled -- for the time being. Just before the United Nations-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society opened in Tunis, Tunisia, negotiators from around the globe agreed to create a new international forum to discuss such issues as spam, privacy and hacking. The Internet Governance Forum will have no power over the Net, however, and U.S. oversight over some technical issues will continue.

Not that the federal government wields much power over the Net. Its influence is essentially confined to the mundane but important issue of how domain names are assigned.

Technically speaking, any changes to the master list of Web addresses have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Since 1998, however, the department has entrusted all the work on Internet addresses to a contractor, the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN oversees the technical aspects of the system and sets rules for resolving disputes over domain names.

Governed by an international board, ICANN has generated plenty of controversy over the years by keeping a tight limit on the number of general categories of domains, such as .com and .org. Critics also say ICANN has been too secretive and too supportive of commercial interests, but there have been no accusations that it's a puppet of the U.S. government.

The agreement reached Wednesday leaves ICANN essentially as is for now. That doesn't mean other countries like it that way. They just couldn't sway the U.S., which effectively held veto power over the issue.

As flawed as the current system is, at least it allows technical innovation to flourish online without interference by governments. That's a quality that has to be preserved for the sake of not just U.S. policy but for an increasingly interconnected world. Having kept its hands off the inner workings of the Net, the federal government needs to persuade the rest of the world that it can be trusted to keep doing just that.

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