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Internet governance will remain predominantly under US control for at least five years, after a vote at a UN conference in Tunisia.

The second summit of the UN-endorsed World Summit of the Information Society, which is under way in Tunis, agreed late Tuesday night to a deal that will see the status quo continue largely unchanged.

Several countries including Iran, China and Saudi Arabia, argued that internet governance should become truly international, but the US wanted to continue its control of the International Council for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), which manages internet technical policy.

The forum negotiators agreed to the creation of a new Internet Governance Forum, which will have international representation and will discuss public policy issues, but have little power over areas controlled by existing bodies such as Icann.

Domain names (such as ‘ft.com’) have been the main bugbear of internet governance, along with the control of national domain extensions (such as .uk or .ru), and the introduction of domain names in character sets that support languages such as Mandarin.

China and Iran had particularly objected to the control of internet addressing and technical policy by Icann, which is mandated by the US Chamber of Commerce. The EU had also called for more international governance, but softened its stance earlier this year. The US, and several other countries including Australia and Canada, have argued internationalising the system could bog down internet governance in bureaucracy and stifle innovation.

Most of the 13 “root server” computers, which direct all internet traffic, including emails and web pages, are located in the US and all come under the control of Icann, whose staff and board include members from around the world, but are mostly US technologists and lawyers.

By contrast, the telephone numbering system is run by the International Telecommunications Union, an organisation affiliated to the United Nations.

Icann is a California-based non-profit organisation whose creation was mandated by the US Chamber of Commerce under the Clinton administration in 1998. It was formed with the intention to facilitate the transition of the domain name system from US control to the global community, and last year announced plans to become a more internationally representative organisation. But in June the US Chamber of Commerce reaffirmed it wanted to keep control of the body.

Non-US governments are represented on Icann’s Government Advisory Committee, but critics argue this too has limited power.

The decision on Tuesday night meant much of the remainder of the WSIS conference will focus on the “digital divide”. On opening the conference, ITU Secretary-General Yoshio Utsumi said the forum’s goal of connecting 800,000 unconnected villages to the internet by 2015 was attainable.

“In order to connect these villages we need about $1bn,” Mr Utsumi said. “Every year about $100bn is invested in the mobile telephone system, so only 1 per cent of this amount is needed to achieve the target.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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