There's an argument going on at the United Nations about the future of the internet - or, more accurately, who controls it.

At the moment, many countries accept the way that current administrator, Icann, runs the system. But not everyone's pleased. Icann is a private body and has made some decisions that critics feel is contrary to its mission - this Wikipedia page details some of the grievances: they are, roughly, that it's too secretive, that it's failing to spread internet use, and that it's beholden to American interests.

Some developing nations resent Icann and Europe has had a problematic relationship with it, too. At the moment, the UN has suggested four options: Set up a UN body to replace Icann; set up a non-UN body to replace Icann; set up three new bodies to replace Icann... or leave it, more or less, as it is.

It doesn't take a genius to realise that when the proposals are looked at again in November, they're quite likely to want to reform it in some serious ways: after all, who wouldn't change the system in order to have a say in how it's run?

But should the internet be a political pawn?

This is all part of a wider struggle to control the internet, as we reported a couple of weeks ago. Does the control of the internet benefit from being private? Should the root servers be publicly-controlled? And if they are, should the US be in charge of them?

The UN's proposal, though intended to bring more openness to the system, could end up splintering it. It's no great secret that bureaucracies don't always make the best decisions, and that a UN-controlled body which tried to represent nations with opposing views could be hamstrung by its own attempts to help.

Of course, the problem here is really how we can control what is, in most circumstances, an uncontrolled environment. If we fracture control of the internet, how do we maintain security? How do we stop spam from spreading? How do we close the door to cyber criminals? What about freedom of speech?

I don't think anybody really wants a situation where we lose the wide-ranging scope of the current system, and instead develop dozens of smaller, national internets: that seems contrary to the spirit on which the internet has been built. Such a situation would play into the hands of both self-interested corporations and restrictive government regimes.

But ultimately, this will be a case of who holds the strongest cards. America's need to legislate the web is weakening its position. Europe, as always, is riddled with internal conflicts. Meanwhile China - a repressive internet regime - is a growing force, and wants to flex its muscle.

Ladies and gentlemen, the battle for the soul of the internet has begun.

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