The second stage of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis from 16 to 18 November will be a showy United Nations event where countries will try to agree on the legal and technical future of the Internet. How the Web is administered and regulated worldwide will be the hottest topic on the agenda.
The United States currently controls the main bodies that run the Internet, including the main one, ICANN, a California-based legal body that assigns domain names worldwide. Virtually every other country criticises this US monopoly as unacceptable.
The reaction is understandable because ICANN's decisions, though they seem very technical, have direct political repercussions. It can, in theory, block access to country domain names (for example, all the .fr or .cn sites). Money is also an issue because the body that runs the Internet has power to give advantage to some technologies and thus certain firms. The recent hiring by Google of Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf, ICANN's vice-president, has therefore raised concern.
The situation can certainly be criticised but the proposed remedies seem much worse. China, Cuba and the world's other most repressive countries want to hand over control of the Internet to an independent supra-national body such as the United Nations. But the UN's clumsy record on human rights - its Rights Commission was recently chaired by Libya - make the prospect a chilling one.
Do we really want the countries that censor the Internet and throw its users in prison to be in charge of regulating the flow of information on it? The simple fact of holding of WSIS in Tunisia, whose president and his family control the national media and Internet access with an iron grip, shows that freedom of expression is not seen as a key issue at the Summit.
Yet under all the world's dictatorships, the Internet is these days an outlet for independent news that escapes censorship. Seeing the Internet as just something technical and thus allowing the likes of Iran and Vietnam to take part in running it worldwide is a mistake that could cost hundreds of millions of users dearly.
The European Union has recently distanced itself clearly from the US position. Without lining up with China, it wants the WSIS to come up with a new multilateral decision-making process. It suggests that an international forum of private and public representatives be involved in running the Internet. But this is still too vague to be a credible alternative.
The entire Internet depends on the reliability of procedures and technology approved by ICANN. Politicians sometimes have to be consulted, but giving too much importance to governments could harm the growth of the Web and undermine its stability.
It is hard to justify ICANN being under control of one country forever. The United States will have to negotiate on this point and indeed it has proposed that the Internet be run by the private sector.
It has to be admitted that the US has managed to develop the Internet without major problems and that it broadly respects online freedom of expression. So let us hope an acceptable compromise - that reduces government intervention to a minimum and guarantees freedom of expression -will be found at the WSIS. If not, it would be best to leave things as they are.