The notion of “internet governance” may seem an oxymoron to the 875 million users of the global computer network, which has proved stubbornly resistant to the efforts of those who wish to rid it of pornography, spam emails and other objectionable material.
The US, which gave birth to the internet, maintains control of the system that matches easy-to-remember domain names with numerical addresses that computers can understand.
That worries countries such as Brazil and Iran, which have pushed to transfer control to the United Nations or some other international body.
Even the European Union, where much of the business community backs the current system, has taken swipes at the US.
“We just say this needs to be addressed in a more cooperative way … under public-policy principles,” said one EU official who asked not to be identified.
The issue is expected to dominate the World Summit on the Information Society, which begins on Wednesday in Tunis, Tunisia.
The summit – part diplomatic summit, part trade fair – was launched two years ago with a focus on bringing the internet and other advanced communications to less developed parts of the world.
That remains a hot topic for many of the 17,000 diplomats, human-rights activists and technology experts expected to attend.
Internet access in the developing world will always remain expensive as long as governments allow their telecommunications monopolies to discourage competition, said Allen Miller, a senior vice-president at the Information Technology Association of America.
Over the past two years, tension between the haves and have-nots has shifted from the question of who has access to the internet to who controls its plumbing.