WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is headed for a showdown with much of the rest of the world over control of the Internet.
Countries like China, Brazil and Iran don't like the fact that the world's only superpower oversees the system that guides traffic across the global computer network, and have pushed for an international body to take over that role.
The United States believes such a body would slow the pace of online innovation to a crawl, requiring entrepreneurs to win permission from a cumbersome bureaucracy before introducing services like Internet telephony.
"It would be akin to having more than 100 drivers of a single bus. Right now we have a driver, and the driver's been doing a good job," said Assistant Commerce Secretary Michael Gallagher, the US official who oversees the domain-name system.
Much of the business and technical community that actually runs the Internet agrees with Gallagher. But those groups will be relegated to the sidelines and the United States will find few allies among other governments at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, Tunisia next week.
"Materially there's nothing wrong with the current structure. But formally it is strange that something with such a global impact is being controlled by one nation, and there is a sharpened position against the United States' unilateral thinking," Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs Laurens Jan Brinkhorst said in an interview.
If unresolved, the clash could lead to a split in the domain-name system, and Internet users wouldn't necessarily reach the same Web site when they type an address like "www.reuters.com" into their browsers.
Experts say that's unlikely as it would destroy the consensus on which the Internet is built, but few expect the issue will be resolved at the United Nations-sponsored event.
The head of the US delegation said the dispute has distracted attention from the summit's original focus on bringing advanced communications to the developing world.
"As far as I can tell, these discussions about Internet governance won't put one more computer or one more cell phone or one more anything into the hands of somebody who doesn't have it in Africa, Asia, South America or elsewhere," Ambassador David Gross said in an interview.
Others point out that search engines are gradually making the domain-name system irrelevant.
"This is such a sideshow debate," said Oxford University professor Jonathan Zittrain. "If you couldn't find IBM at ibm.com, what would you do? You would Google it, and there you'd be."
The dispute revolves around a simple list stored in thousands of domain-name servers around the globe.
That list, known as the "root zone file", serves as a master telephone book for the Internet's 259 "top level" domains -- those portions of the domain name that appear behind the final dot, such as ".com", ".org" or the United Kingdom's ".uk."
The list only changes when a California nonprofit body called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, adds new top-level domains or redelegates the ones that exist. ICANN can't make any changes without the approval of the US Department of Commerce.
Some countries worry that the United States could use this system to effectively "unplug" a nation from the Internet by redirecting its country code. Experts say that would be difficult to pull off because it would require thousands of computer administrators across the globe to cooperate.
Gallagher says the United States has kept politics out of the root since it set up ICANN in 1998. But in August he asked ICANN to postpone work on a .xxx domain for sex sites after conservative groups urged the Commerce Department to block it.
"Nothing would have happened unless the US government sent that letter," said Syracuse University professor Milton Mueller, who chairs ICANN's noncommercial users group.
Business and technical experts say the United States would have been better off expressing its concerns through ICANN's government committee rather than taking a stand on its own.
Gallagher said he sent the letter to express concerns in as transparent a manner as possible and avoid charges of backroom manipulation.
"(When) other countries have done it, it's not a foul. For some reason when the US does it it's a foul," he said.
Though the United States does not plan to give up control of the domain-name system, the summit may lead to other changes.
The United States has said it's willing to give other countries more direct control over their own country codes, and ICANN is exploring ways to improve the relationship with its governments committee.
Participants may also agree to set up a forum to discuss cross-border issues like spam and cybercrime.
"I think the US realises in some way that they're picking fights they don't need to have," Mueller said.
Additional reporting by Lucas van Grinsven in Amsterdam.
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