— Over one thousand internet experts will gather in Greece this week for the first UN-sponsored Internet Governance Forum (IGF) meeting, amid grumblings over the dominant position currently enjoyed by the US.
The four-day forum on the future of the internet opens on Monday in Athens. The event follows the Tunis World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which took place in November 2005, and which nearly saw a rift open between the US and the rest of the world on who should control the internet.
Countries such as Iran and China objected to having the key internet systems managed by the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit organisation under tender from the US Department of Commerce.
The US has resisted attempts to modify the existing framework, warning that regimes that do not allow freedom of speech could gain leverage over the internet in this fashion.
The issue is expected to crop up again at the IGF meeting, which aims to "contribute to a better understanding of how the internet can be used to its full potential". The IGF, which is not a decision-making body, was set up in Tunis for an initial five-year term as a compromise solution that would enable talks on internet oversight to continue.
"This new global forum, which will henceforth be held every year, aims to facilitate open dialogue between stakeholders on formulating joint policies," says Greek Transport Minister Michalis Liapis. "Whether the internet should be controlled, by whom, and what is the framework required for its management are among the pressing questions."
Online security, access for non-English users, censorship and the battle against the global scourge of spam are other topics also scheduled for discussion in Athens during several brainstorming workshops and open sessions, which will be held between October 30 and November 2.
The forum brings together representatives from 90 countries, and major industry players including Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Sun Microsystems, Fujitsu and Ericsson.
"There will be lively debates among participants who do not usually find themselves around the same table," says Martin Selmayr, spokesman for EU Information Society Media Commissioner Viviane Reding. "It's a great bazaar of ideas, confrontation and discussion."
Officials from the EU, the World Bank, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the International Telecommunication Union and UNESCO will also be present, as will academics and human rights activists.
"The Forum has no decision-making powers, but it can make recommendations that will subsequently be taken up by organisations that do have such powers," adds Markus Kummer, head of the UN Secretariat of the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG).
"Opinions differ on a number of concerns, frequently by a wide margin, but even talking about them is a mark of progress," Kummer adds.