Web war

November 17, 2005

The U.S. - and anyone around the world who values the efficient functioning and free flow of information on the Internet - dodged a bullet this week at the first World Summit on the Information Society. If the three-day U.N. gathering of at least 12,000 delegates and 40 heads of state, which opened yesterday in Tunisia, has an Orwellian sound to it, that's not far from the case.

Leading up to the summit there's been a long-building movement - led by China, Cuba and other known bastions of repression, and unfortunately joined by the European Union - to wrest control from a U.S. contractor of the Internet's centralized system of managing the unique addresses of Web users. Behind the rhetoric about U.S. hegemony (over a marvel that was created by the U.S. Defense Department and then handed to the world largely free of strings) is the aim of filtering the flow of information around the world. It's particularly telling that Tunisian and foreign reporters were harassed and beaten as the summit opened.

Under an important deal reached Tuesday night, however, U.S. negotiators averted a takeover of the day-to-day management of the Internet by some sort of international body - leaving the status quo in place. And because the present state of the Internet is hardly in need of major fixes, that's very good news. That also gives this summit room to focus on the more critical issue that originally prompted the meeting: the vast digital divide between the billion users of the Internet and the billions around the world who do not yet have access to cyberspace.

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