The United States claimed victory this week in the contest to keep control of the computers crucial for directing Internet traffic. But approval Friday of a plan to leave Washington squarely in charge hasn't fully ended the debate: The European Union and a host of other countries are suggesting that a new multinational forum, which delegates to a U.N. technology summit also agreed to set up, simply delays the battle for another day.
The forum, they say, still could ultimately leave several countries — and not the United States alone — with key decisions about domain names and the computers that direct the Internet's flow of information, commerce and dissent.
The computers under dispute, known as root servers, act as the Internet's master directories so Web browsers and e-mail programs can find other computers. Users around the world check those directories millions of times a day without ever knowing it.
Although Pakistan and other countries sought a takeover of the directories by an international body such as the United Nations, negotiators ultimately agreed late Tuesday, as time ran out, to a create an open-ended, nonbinding international forum for raising important Internet issues.
As the three-day U.N. World Summit on the Information Society ended Friday, delegates from 174 countries approved a five-page platform outlining the future of Internet governance along with prescriptions for expanding access worldwide and guarding the free flow of information, ideas and knowledge.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to convene the new Internet Governance Forum early next year. A precise location had not yet been selected, though Greece has offered to host.
Details of the forum's agenda were still being worked out, but organizers said it would bring together government, business and civil leaders and could cover spam, cybercrime and other issues beyond the addressing system.
Because negotiators had watered down language of the platform to reach agreement, many questions remain about how the forum might influence the United States and the quasi-independent agency to which it has delegated authority, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN.
"The real result of WSIS (World Summit) is that the debate over ICANN and Internet governance will be prolonged for another five years," said Milton Mueller, an Internet governance expert at Syracuse University. "The U.S. can claim a short-term victory but faces a long-term war of attrition that will gradually erode its position."
Annan was blunt in his assessment.
"The United States deserves our thanks for having developed the Internet and making it available to the world," the U.N. head told delegates. "But I think you also all acknowledge the need for more international participation in discussions of Internet governance issues."
But on the sidelines, other delegates acknowledged the deal was vague.
"We haven't resolved everything, but the principle is that all governments have an equal role in responsibility," said Yoshio Utsumi, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, the U.N. agency that organized the summit.
The 25-member EU bloc said the deal would, in the end, give more countries a voice on domain name policies, including the prickly situation of providing domain suffixes in languages other than English.
EU spokesman Martin Selmayr said the final "inclusive and global" deal was largely based on the EU's proposal, particularly the creation of the international forum and a declaration that no country should be involved in decisions affecting another country's country-code suffix, such as ".cn" for China.
Though the EU didn't get all it wanted, it got "a framework for a more international approach," Selmayr said. "That is, for us, the important development."
Even following the deal, some delegates continued to seek a greater U.N. role through the ITU.
"The Internet has become such an important global network and an important infrastructure, that it goes beyond the framework of one state," Russian Information Technologies Minister Leonid Reiman told Itar-Tass. "ITU has proved it is capable of doing the job."
David Gross, the U.S. State Department's top official on Internet policy, said simply that the deal preserved "the unique role of the United States government in assuring the reliability and stability of the Internet."
Negotiators on both sides said that the talks, which began in earnest on Sunday, were fierce before a final decision was reached the night before the summit's opening.
Pakistan's Sarbuland Khan, executive coordinator of the UN's task force on communications technologies, said the agreement would bring countries closer "to help continue the dialogue and slowly move to a more participatory and inclusive approach."
Ultimately, the agreement came after intense political scrutiny, something that had not really taken place in the 1990s.
"That's what happened here at WSIS, which was long overdue," said Hans Klein, a professor at Georgia Tech. "The political system came in and gave it a thorough review. The irony is even though Europe has been critical of ICANN, they have given their blessing to it. It's like the Europeans re-elected George Bush."
On the Net: