For many critics, the United Nations-sponsored Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is nothing more than a hot-air event void of any decision-making power. But advocates see the meeting, the first to follow last year's contentious World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), as an opportunity to set the tone for future discussions on who should govern the Internet and how.
The forum, which began Monday in Athens as the first of five annual events, will focus on several pressing Internet issues, such as security, multilingualism and Internet governance. It was conceived last year at the second phase of the WSIS in Tunis, Tunisia, where delegates argued about control of the Internet and whether U.S. interests were too powerful, and where they demanded a platform to continue the debate.
"The forum encourages everyone to speak out about the Internet," said Rolando Gomez, a U.N spokesman who is attending the Athens event. "We expect all sorts of issues to be addressed during this very open debate."
The IGF comes as the Internet continues to change not only technologically but also demographically. In the next few years, Asian users are expected to outnumber North American and European users by a wide margin. This shift could have significant implications for the Internet -- an obvious one being language. The current DNS (domain name system) still requires Chinese users, for instance, to type Internet addresses in Latin script.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the U.S.-led group that currently manages crucial Internet infrastructure such as domain names, root servers and IP (Internet Protocol) addresses, has tried to respond to this development with a plan to gradually expand the number of characters that can be used for Internet addresses to include all languages. But work is still under way to develop a safe and stable system for using international symbols for the top-level domain.
Impatience with the current U.S.-centric system, some experts say, could prompt a huge country like China -- divided by traditional factors like language and geography -- to launch its own Internet, technically incompatible with the global Internet.
There is a real possibility that some countries could walk away from discussions and establish their own system someday, Hans Klein, associate professor in the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, warned in an earlier interview. It wouldn't be the first time that something like this has happened, he said, drawing a comparison to the dispute over the GPS (Global Positioning System), which the U.S. government controls.
Back then, the U.S. irked the European Union by saying that GPS is a global service but under its control and that in the event of international hostility, it would retain the right to degrade the system and use it for its own purposes, according to Klein. The E.U. eventually broke with the U.S. and launched its own geostationary system, Galileo.
Some groups are already working on an alternative root system. One of them is the Open Root Server Network (ORSN). The network, run by a group of medium-sized enterprises, has installed root servers across Europe.
The Athens talks could see tempers flare again over Internet oversight. Today oversight effectively rests with the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Last year in Tunis, both the U.S. and the E.U. claimed victory in an agreement reached over Internet governance, despite remaining at opposite ends of the governance debate. While the U.S. interpreted the agreement to give it continued control over the Internet's core components, including its addressing systems, the E.U. read it as an opportunity to open the door for Internet oversight to be shared by governments of the world.
Proposals to create a governmental organization that might control many technical aspects of the Internet, were taken "off the table" as a result of the agreement, David Gross, ambassador for the bureau of economic and business affairs at the U.S. Department of State and the person leading the U.S. delegation in Tunis, said at the summit. "There is no change to the U.S. role, no change to ICANN," he said.
Gross warned that opening the process to intergovernmental oversight could weigh down the Internet with bureaucracy and stifle innovation.
The only change that Gross acknowledged was an agreement to create IGF as a platform to discuss issues, such as cybercrime and spam, but to play "no role in oversight."
As the E.U. read the agreement, the U.S. had consented to considering a new oversight body by agreeing to the wording "enhanced cooperation." The E.U.'s position: The role of ICANN shouldn't change but rather the oversight role.
The E.U. and other countries are demanding oversight in cooperation and on equal footing.
E.U. Commissioner for Information Society and Media Viviane Reding referred Monday to the IGF as a "new step" toward an international consensus on Internet governance issues.
Whether the IGF itself could evolve into a global Internet oversight body someday is "a possibility," U.N. spokesman Gomez acknowledged. "You can't rule it out but Athens isn't the place where any decisions will be made," he said.
The forum runs through Thursday.