Don't screw up a running system. This isn't advice from a computer expert but a message delivered Thursday by a high-ranking European Union (EU) official at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) here in Geneva.
"The Internet has been a wonderful story," said European Commission technology commissioner Erkki Liikanen at a news conference. "It is very important that we guarantee stability."
Like the U.S., the EU favors upholding the status quo on the thorny issue of Internet governance -- namely, to stick with the most-recognized Net governing body, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), until that organization can be improved or even replaced.
Internet governance has emerged as one of the key issues in the Net summit, which aims to help bridge the digital divide between poor and rich countries. The term, however, has evolved from its early technical focus on names, numbers and protocols to include policy issues.
And policy, indeed, has emerged as the great divide between the EU, U.S. and many other industrialized countries in one camp and Brazil, China and numerous developing countries in another. While the U.S.-led bloc favors ICANN, based in Marina del Rey, California, the other bloc seeks strong government intervention.
Putting governments in charge of the Internet isn't the solution, according to Liikanen. "We have to keep the Internet running and secure," he said. "That said, ICANN needs to become more international. There have been problems with ICANN's internationalization."
Even if Liikanen opposes governments managing the Internet, he believes they should have a voice in Net policy given the huge role the Internet plays in society. "Government advisory bodies have to play a bigger role in ICANN," he said
To that end, Liikanen announced plans to form a senior-level task force to help craft a EU position on Net governance focusing on both technical and policy issues to address before WSIS' second summit in 2005 at Tunis, Tunisia.
In a move to defuse one of the more explosive issues, negotiators agreed during talks before the summit to ask the United Nations about establishing a committee to investigate Internet management and report back before the second summit.
On funding, the EU also shares the U.S. position: it should be voluntary. Only nations with regulatory policies ensuring competitive services should be recipients of European aid, according to the commissioner. "No public money should be used to subsidize a monopoly, which sells services at high costs," Liikanen said. "Market liberalization in Europe has brought prices down and better service."
WSIS is a crucial step in bringing governments together to discuss and advance Net policy issues, according to Paul Verhoef, head of international aspects in the Information Society directorate at the Commission. "It is very important to bring all the various players together in the group to study Internet governance over the next two years," he said. "Hearing all the different opinions and formulating a strategy won't be easy, to put it mildly."
In the meantime, Verhoef, who leaves the Commission at the end of the year to head a European arm of ICANN, agrees with his boss. "It's good that a final decision on Internet governance will not be reached at this summit," he said. "We don't want to rush into this. The main thing over the next couple of years is that nobody makes a dumb decision. There's too much at stake.