By Jack Chang
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — When hundreds of technology experts from around the world gather here this week to hammer out the future of the Internet, the hottest issue won't be spam, phishing or any of the other phenomena that bedevil users everywhere.
Instead, ending U.S. control over what's become a global network will be at the top of the agenda for many of the more than 2,000 participants expected at the United Nations Internet Governance Forum, which begins Monday.
With the Internet now dominating nearly every aspect of modern life, U.S. control of the medium has become a sensitive topic worldwide. In nations that try to control what people can see and hear, the Internet often is the only source of uncensored news and opinion.
U.S. officials say that keeping Internet functions under their control has protected that free flow of information.
Issue of control
Yet to many foreign-government officials and technology gurus, the United States has too much control over a tool that's used by more than 1.4 billion people worldwide. Brazil, China and other countries have proposed transferring oversight to an international body.
"The Internet has become an everyday instrument of particular importance for the entire world, yet it's still under the control of one country," said Rogerio Santanna, Brazil's secretary of logistics and information technology.
Others worry, however, that transferring the administration of the Internet to the United Nations or another international body would make it vulnerable to censorship, especially by powerful countries such as China.
The most dramatic example of Internet censorship happened recently in Myanmar, when the ruling military junta cut Internet connections to stop dissident blogs and other sites that had distributed information about government repression during September's crushed pro-democracy protests.
China is routinely criticized for its censorship policies and its use of information gleaned from Internet providers to crack down on dissidents.
Even Brazil has inspired Internet privacy debates by demanding that U.S. technology giant Google hand over information about users who are suspected of posting child pornography and other offensive material on its social-networking site Orkut.
"Should the U.N. gain control of the Internet," the conservative U.S. research center the Heritage Foundation wrote on its Web site, "it would give meddlesome governments the opportunity to censor and regulate the medium until its usefulness as a vehicle for freedom of expression and international competition is crippled."
Debate for years
Such debates have dominated technology circles for years and are the spark for this week's meeting, the second of five such global forums organized by the United Nations.
The Brazil forum will feature panels on other key issues such as blocking online child pornography, expanding Internet access in less developed countries and an array of technical matters.
Yet the fight over U.S. control promises to take center stage.
The forum, which was organized partly as a response to international debate about the issue, can't make binding decisions, but it can lay the foundation for policy changes.
At the heart of the controversy is a nonprofit company based in Marina del Rey, Calif., called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which the U.S. government has contracted to help it manage key Internet functions.
Those include regulating Web sites with popular domain names such as .com and .org and creating new top-level domain names. Critics say the arrangement makes internationally popular Web sites subject to U.S. policy on everything from user privacy to obscenity.
Through ICANN, the United States also assigns Internet protocol addresses, which identify computers, routers and other electronic devices worldwide.
Best for users?
U.S. government officials also argue that keeping the Internet under centralized control is best for users.
But for many critics of the ICANN system, the main problem is the organization's perceived lack of transparency. They say ICANN shuts out the public when it makes key decisions, such as when it nominates board members, and lacks accountability to the Internet users it serves.
"We feel there would be a very healthy check and balances if there was something independent of the United States and ICANN to oversee the system," said Syracuse University professor Milton Mueller, who's part of the academic policy group the Internet Governance Project.
"As long as the United States holds on to its control, there will always be questions about the system's transparency."
For Santanna, however, the need for change has been clear in the dispute with Google, which could make news while the U.N. forum is under way.
Google has said it can't meet Brazil's demands for user information because its servers are in the United States and are subject to U.S. privacy laws.
After months of dispute, both sides will meet this week in an attempt to reach agreement.
Santanna said the long dispute could have been avoided if there'd been an international body that, in addition to managing the system's technical functions, could resolve such cross-border controversies.