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COMMUNICATIONS: Internet – Ruled by the Many, or by Special Interests?

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov 12 2007 (IPS) - The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) being held in Rio de Janeiro Monday through Thursday, with more than 1,500 people attending, is discussing issues that are not yet a concern for the majority of users, but are already having a major impact on their lives.

Key aspects of the Internet, such as infrastructure, the domain name system, access, diversity, openness and security will be debated under the overall theme of “Internet Governance for Development”, by representatives from government, the private sector and civil society.

The IGF is not a decision-making body but a forum for dialogue on equal terms between stakeholders. It was created at the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis in November 2005, and is promoted by the United Nations.

The first IGF, held in Greece in November 2006, was attended by 1,350 participants. The next two annual meetings will be hosted by India and Egypt.

The second IGF is addressing the same themes as the first, but Brazil led a move to include infrastructure as well, which allows tabling the need to create international authorities to make decisions affecting all Internet users, such as issues related to domain names, which identify websites, thematic areas and countries.

The domain name system continues to be administered by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), linked with the United States Department of Commerce, an arrangement which many regard as incompatible with the international character of the Internet.

This is an issue that many governments, especially the administration in Washington, and Internet related agencies do not want to discuss, arguing that it works just fine.

“But decisions need to be internationalised so that no one government has overall control,” Carlos Afonso, a civil society representative on the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee (, which is helping to organise the IGF in Rio de Janeiro, told IPS.

ICANN operates as a monopoly broker in a sort of stock exchange of Internet names and domains, under the guise of a technical caretaker, said Afonso, who is known as the “father of the Brazilian Internet” because of his role in setting up the first server and early e-mail networks between computers.

But decisions about domains may be purely political, and they should not be made unilaterally by a non-representative institution that depends on just one government, ICANN critics say. For example, proposals to create a domain for pornography websites, to be called .xxx, were rejected by a majority of the ICANN board in March.

This was a decision about the content of the Internet, which goes beyond ICANN’s brief, Afonso said.

International Internet connections, which go through nerve centres concentrated in the United States, Europe and some Asian countries, like Singapore, are another case in point, showing the need for multilateral, democratic mechanisms for Internet management.

The income generated by this flow of information remains in the hands of rich countries. In this unregulated space, powerful countries like Australia can negotiate bilateral agreements, but poor countries such as those in Africa end up only paying the cost of communications, without receiving any income, Afonso said.

This makes for “perverse imbalances,” such as users in poor areas paying much higher charges for Internet connections than in wealthy areas, he complained.

Thus in Manaus, in the heart of Brazil’s Amazon jungle region, access to broadband Internet connection costs 16 times more than in the European Union, and even Brazilians living in rich regions have to pay two or three times more.

Added to the hook-up costs, the telecommunications corporations operate pricing policies that charge more for services provided to people who live far away from industrial centres.

These imbalances only widen the gap between rich and poor in relation to information and communication technology, said Afonso.

In his view, a global compensation mechanism is needed to regulate prices, that would reduce imbalances, in order not to leave the countries most in need of cheap connections at the mercy of the powers-that-be in telecommunications and the Internet.

International governance systems are also essential to deal with security problems on the Internet, which is not restricted by national borders. For instance, Brazil has created mechanisms which have successfully reduced online crime, such as hackers gaining access to electronic banking systems and stealing fortunes.

But today the criminals are using servers in other countries that do not have control and protection systems. The Internet Steering Committee’s statistics on hacking attacks indicate that the majority originate in Taiwan, the United States and South Korea, Afonso said.

The Internet has around one billion users at present, less than one-sixth of the world’s population. Widening access to it is a permanent challenge, and public policies to promote this will be discussed at the IGF.

Adapting to diversity is another issue. The vast majority of Internet content is in English, and people whose languages do not use the Latin alphabet face enormous barriers to full inclusion on the net.

This week’s IGF in Rio will include five special sessions on the central themes, as well as seminars, forums and meetings of special interest “dynamic coalitions”.

The meeting is co-chaired by Nitin Desai, an Indian national who is the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Adviser for Internet Governance, and Hadil da Rocha Vianna, head of Scientific and Technological Affairs for the Brazilian Foreign Ministry.

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