As revolutionary as the Internet has been, its largest effects may be yet to come: as an inexhaustible library; as a superefficient vehicle of commerce; as a way for machines and electronic devices anywhere to talk with each other or people.
A UN advisory group has produced a report advocating some international control of the Internet.
The document, produced by the UN's Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) this summer, calls for shared roles by government, commercial interests, and private citizens but doesn't spell out exactly how these roles would be played. It also calls for "effective and meaningful participation of all stakeholders, especially from developing countries" and more resources - human, financial, and technical - for poorer countries.
WGIG is meeting in Geneva over the next two weeks to prepare for a UN summit on Internet governance in Tunis, Tunisia, Nov. 14-16.
Technical standards for the Internet currently are set by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a US-based not-for-profit group established by the US Department of Commerce. The US has said it has no plans to internationalize ICANN but has expressed willingness to discuss the future of the Internet and the possibility of more international cooperation both in Geneva and Tunis.
The US government also has pledged to keep a light hand in its oversight of ICANN. But when ICANN proposed in August to establish a new .xxx domain name, which would apparently establish an official Internet red-light district for pornography, the US asked for a delay to allow more public comment. While the government's motives may have been good, its claim of having a "hands off" policy toward ICANN took a hit.
Without deft handling, the Tunis summit could become another international black eye for the US, such as it received for not adapting the Kyoto treaty on climate change. Yet it's far from clear a body established by the UN is ready to become an able administrator for the Internet. The free flow of ideas and commerce, so key to the Internet's exponential growth, would not be well served if hobbled by bureaucracy or chilled by governments interested in suppressing dissident voices.
Legitimate issues face the Internet, among them combating cybercrime, viruses, and spam. A conversion from the IPv4 to the IPv6 standard for Web addresses would improve the quality of Web service and data security and create new addresses needed for future expansion. It will take international cooperation to accomplish.
The benefits of the Internet need to better reach all of the world. A State Department report shows that much of the Southern Hemisphere is missing out, with only 3 percent of IPv4 addresses currently located in South America and only 1 percent in Africa.
If international demands for less US control boil over, other countries could employ a "nuclear option" - setting up a rival to ICANN and potentially creating chaos on the Internet with two divergent standards.
That need not happen. International governance of the Internet does have an inescapable logic. Better that the US engage vigorously now in shaping that institution, even as it realizes that handing off control to it is nowhere in the immediate future.