WSIS Tunis The World Summit on the Information Society starts this Wednesday in Tunis. It will be three days in which the world's governments will decide for the very first time what should and can be done with this medium we call the internet.
But three days before that, starting midday Sunday 12 November, will begin the discussions on what is the most controversial aspect of this entire process - internet governance.
The issue is world news, stretching from the BBC to the Washington Post to the China Post. Put simply it is this: because of the way the internet came about, the US government created the institutions that have effective oversight of the internet - and it has effective control over them.
With the internet now undoubtedly a global medium, the world's governments want more of a say in how it is run. The United Nations created a team of international experts to come up with a new model for running the internet. Unfortunately, because of the widely differing views, it could not agree on one model, but rather offered four. Each of these models, however, foresaw the US government handing over its overall control to an international body.
The problems stem from the US government stating immediately before publication of this report that it had no intention of handing over its "historic role". Many thought this was a clever bargaining tactic for future discussions. But the US administration stuck with this line throughout the last discussions before the Summit in Geneva in September, causing increasing frustration and anger among some countries.
Then, just before the end of that conference, the UK, as representative of the EU, stunned everyone by suggesting a hybrid solution between the US on one hand and Brazil, China, Iran and others, on the other.
That solution envisaged the US handing over ultimate control of the body that oversees the internet - ICANN - to a forum of world governments. Plus, the creation of a new forum would pull the public policy decision-making part of ICANN into a more open and international area.
With the EU having undermined the US position in the hope of forming consensus, the US and ICANN looked isolated and out-of-touch, even though the resilient and resourceful US ambassador David Gross and the savvy head of ICANN Paul Twomey both stood firm.
Since that point there have been no formal discussion between governments. But much has happened in between and there has been subtle shifts of position in preparation for the next round of fighting.
The interesting point to note is that there will have to be some kind of breakthrough at the Summit. There is no way a whole model will be agreed to but there is very, very strong pressure for there to be an intellectual resolution to the problem.
Usually when there are intractable differences between governments at the UN, what is produced is a wishy-washy document that says nothing at all. Governments very rarely take the step of storming out of a conference, or of pushing a vote, because they don't need to. Not that a vote would make much difference because UN lawyers have told us that the Summit does not count as a full and binding meeting of the UN - where a vote would be virtually impossible for a government to ignore. However, World Summits are very few and far between and do carry enormous weight.
The reason why a bland statement that says nothing about internet governance is unlikely however is because it would, by its existence, mean a continuation of the status quo with the US government running the show. And that is precisely what the argument is about in the first place.
In the intervening months however, the US and ICANN have recovered from their bruising and with some frantic lobbying and behind-the-scenes work managed to shift the discussion back towards them.
ICANN has finally come to agreement with VeriSign -in return for handing VeriSign an apparently eternal monopoly on all dotcoms, VeriSign agreed to recognise ICANN as an authority over it. This boosts ICANN's credibility enormously. On top of that, ICANN has been planning organisational changes to make itself more amenable to governments which it hopes to pull out like a rabbit from the hat at the right moment.
The US government in its own inimitable fashion has been firing broadsides against everyone opposed to its continuation. It has got large numbers of (US) internet companies to come to its defence, stating exactly why the status quo should remain. It has also - through the more-than-willing and disturbingly partisan US press - put out acres of misinformation with regard to what will happen if the current system is changed.
Wrong, nationalistic and horribly simplistic though these arguments are, the sheer quantity and fervour is extremely effective as a lobbying tool. It got so bad that UN secretary-general Kofi Annan wrote an editorial for the Washington Post earlier this month criticising the "growing chorus of misinformation". The UN had no intention of "taking over" the internet, Annan stressed. "The United Nations wants only to ensure the internet's global reach, and that effort is at the heart of this summit."
Even the UK/EU has grown exhausted by the focus, with its representative David Hendon telling an audience at Chatham House in London earlier this month that the "obscure" detail over who ran the Domain Name System had seen him inundated with interview requests. He would much rather get the issue sorted and so be able to get on with the "more important things".
The reality is though that many, many countries across the world are not comfortable with the US having overall charge. The US is successfully arguing several points about how by it being in charge it has kept the Internet free and open. But at the same time, the EU has repeatedly said (but has been carefully ignored in the press because it damages the story), it has no intention whatsoever of letting governments impose new controls over the internet. The UN is saying exactly the same.
The big question is: will the US hang on until it has wrung as much as it can from everyone else before letting go, or will it insist on retaining control, thereby creating an almighty political argument with an uncertain resolution? The most ironic element of all of this is that ultimately, in the wider sense, US control is not important to the internet. The internet can and will skirt past any obstacles to its progress if there is even a glimmer of an exit light. But that is a technical argument and the political realities are very different. Internet governance has become very important and potentially dangerous precisely because governments have started arguing over it.
The most dramatic manifestation of this is that not a single government or international organisation has yet to draw up an alternative model of how the internet would be governed. It is all principles and semantics.
Instead, it has come down to a series of highly intelligent and well informed geeks to explain the practicalities of running the internet in a different way. The Internet Governance Project produced a paper [pdf] at the start of the month that made a real-world review of how the net is run and how the current mechanisms can and should be changed to usher in the new era of the internet.
Philosophies and ideologies were thin on the ground, replaced with the engineer's credo of "find it, fix it". No matter what the political outcome, there is at least one paper that explains what has to be done.®