A battle has erupted over who governs the internet, with America demanding to maintain a key role in the network it helped create and other countries demanding more control.
The European commission is warning that if a deal cannot be reached at a meeting in Tunisia next month the internet will split apart
At issue is the role of the US government in overseeing the internet's address structure, called the domain name system (DNS), which enables communication between the world's computers. It is managed by the California-based, not-for-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) under contract to the US department of commerce.
A meeting of officials in Geneva last month was meant to formulate a way of sharing internet governance which politicians could unveil at the UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis on November 16-18. A European Union plan that goes a long way to meeting the demands of developing countries to make the governance more open collapsed in the face of US opposition.
Viviane Reding, European IT commissioner, says that if a multilateral approach cannot be agreed, countries such as China, Russia, Brazil and some Arab states could start operating their own versions of the internet
and the ubiquity that has made it such a success will disappear.
"We have to have a platform where leaders of the world can express their thoughts about the internet," she said. "If they have the impression that the internet is dominated by one nation and it does not belong to all the nations then the result could be that the internet falls apart."
The US argues that many of the states demanding a more open internet are no fans of freedom of expression.
Michael Gallagher, President Bush's internet adviser and head of the national telecommunications and information administration, believes they are seizing on the only "central" part of the system in an effort to exert control. "They are looking for a handle, thinking that the DNS is the meaning of life. But the meaning of life lies within their own borders and the policies that they create there."
The US government, which funded the development of the internet in the 60s, said in June it intended to retain its role overseeing Icann, reneging on a pledge made during Bill Clinton's presidency. Since Icann was created, the US commerce department has not once interfered with its decisions.
David Gross, who headed the US delegation at the Geneva talks, said untested models of internet governance could disrupt the 250,000-plus networks, all using the same technical standards (TCP/IP), which allows over a billion people to get online for 27bn daily user sessions.
"The internet has been a remarkably reliable and stable network of networks and it has grown at a rate unprecedented in human history," he said. "What we are looking for is a continued evolution of the internet that is technically driven. We do not think the creation of new or use of existing multilateral institutions in the governance of essentially technical institutions is a way to promote technological change."