Prague, 16 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The scene was set for a tense battle.
On one side, the United States. It wanted to keep control of the technical infrastructure that is key for navigating the Internet.
"In the short-run, the U.S. achieved its objective of more or less maintaining control over ICANN and the most important resources that are used to navigate the Internet."
On the other side, countries including China and Iran wanted so-called "Internet governance" transferred to an international body linked to the United Nations.
And somewhere in the middle, the European Union, which wanted some kind of intergovernmental "cooperative body." Negotiations had dragged on for a number of years. And they went right up to the eve of today's summit.
Conference spokeswoman Sarah Parkes said: "They came to an agreement at about 10 past 10 [p.m.], so it was running very late. But everyone was very pleased they came to an agreement about the text."
Parkes says the deal means the United States will keep its oversight of the technology that underpins the Internet. But a new international "Internet governance forum" will be set up to discuss issues of concern. "[The forum is] not envisioned to have any decision-making powers," she said. "So it would be a more consensus-building process. That sounds a bit like a toothless tiger. [But] it is perhaps a more significant breakthrough than it looks."
The deal represents a compromise in a dispute that threatened to overshadow the summit. The dispute centers on a key part of the Internet's architecture -- the technology that lets computers around the world find each other.
The main part is the "domain name" and addressing systems -- those are the suffixes after the "dot" on website addresses, like ".com."
Since 1998, the system has been run by a U.S. NGO known as ICANN -- the Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers. It's an independent body, but it's under contract to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Other countries have become increasingly uncomfortable with the arrangement, says Hans Klein. Klein is a public policy professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States and a member of the Internet Governance Project. He spoke to RFE/RL from Tunis.
"The system has worked quite well, and obviously the growth of the Internet in part is a function of that effective management," he said. "But currently the Internet is under the political oversight of just one country, the U.S. But every other country in the world increasingly depends on it and relies on it as a critical infrastructure, so they're uncomfortable that they don't control their own infrastructure -- another country controls the core technical resources of the Internet. They feel vulnerable because one country could -- even through neglect or being distracted -- not manage it as well as they would themselves since it's so vital to their own national interest."
But the United States has resisted any change. An international system, it countered, would entangle the Internet in layers of bureaucracy. And Washington had another argument -- such as system would give powers to countries with less of a commitment to free speech.
So U.S. negotiators welcomed the deal reached yesterday. Michael Gallagher, the U.S. assistant secretary of commerce, told the Associated Press: "The Internet lives to innovate for another day."
James Love is an Internet policy expert who's in Tunis for the summit. "In the short-run, the U.S. achieved its objective of more or less maintaining control over ICANN and the most important resources that are used to navigate the Internet," he said. "[But] how long that will last remains a question, because many of the complaints are still out there. They weren't resolved."
Love says the new forum might not have any oversight powers, but it could become influential if it gives a platform to
critics of the status quo: "It's true that this forum, there's not a regulatory mechanism built into it. But the mere fact that governments will get together with business and civil society to discuss things that are problematic about the Internet is going to lead to some norm-setting activity. When people get together to talk about problems, they'll also talk about solutions."
The deal still has to be adopted by the summit, which ends on 18 November. After that, the forum is likely to hold its first meeting in Athens next year