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Directing traffic in cyberspace - 25/08/2009

Teenager at a computer © Reporters

Commission calls for international talks on managing internet traffic.

Over the past 40 years, the internet has evolved from a US government project into a global communications grid. But there is only one cop directing all the traffic – a California-based organisation called ICANN.

ICANN stands for Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – a non-profit body that oversees the routing and address system in cyberspace. Founded in 1998, it operates under contract with the US government. Although ICANN is a private organisation with international board members, it ultimately answers to Washington.

The commission has repeatedly called for more international supervision of the internet, arguing that no single country should have authority over such a vital part of the global economy. It recently renewed its appeal, noting that ICANN’s contract with the US government expires in September.

ICANN is approaching a “historic point”, information society commissioner Viviane Reding said. She questioned whether it would become a “fully independent organisation, accountable to the global internet community”. One area of controversy includes the control of country-code domain names like .uk, .fr and .eu.

In a paper titled "Internet governance: the next steps", the commission proposed that ICANN should be managed by private bodies “within principles agreed upon by public authorities but without government interference in day-to-day operations”.

“This is particularly relevant given that the next billion internet users will mainly come from the developing world,” the commission said, calling for international talks on internet governance.

The question has become more pressing as ICANN moves ahead with plans to expand the number and type of internet addresses available. With 1.5 billion people using the network every day – 300 million in the EU alone – ICANN is under pressure to offer more domain name suffixes like .com, .org, and .net. There is also growing demand for addresses in languages other than English.

Other issues include security. Estonia’s websites were attacked by hackers in May 2007 during a diplomatic clash with Russia. ICANN hopes to introduce a system that would certify web content as coming from its purported source.

Commission paper - internet governance

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