RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — When hundreds of technology experts from around the world gather here this week to hammer out the future of the Internet, the hottest issue won't be spam, phishing or any of the other phenomena that bedevil users everywhere.
Instead, ending U.S. control over what's become a global network will be at the top of the agenda for many of the more than 2,000 participants expected at the United Nations Internet Governance Forum, which begins Monday.
With the Internet now dominating nearly aspect of modern life, continued U.S. control of the medium has become a sensitive topic worldwide. In nations that try to control what people can see and hear, the Internet often is the only source of uncensored news and opinion.
U.S. officials say that keeping Internet functions under their control has protected that free flow of information and kept the Internet growing reliably.
Yet to many foreign government officials and technology gurus, the United States has too much control over a tool that's used by more than 1.4 billion people worldwide. Brazil, China and other countries have proposed transferring oversight to an international body.
"The Internet has become an everyday instrument of particular importance for the entire world, yet it's still under the control of one country," said Rogerio Santanna, Brazil's secretary of logistics and information technology. "No one country should be able to make decisions that will affect Internet users everywhere."
Others worry, however, that transferring the administration of the Internet to the United Nations or another international body would make it vulnerable to censorship, especially by powerful countries such as China.
The most dramatic example of Internet censorship happened recently in Myanmar, when the ruling military junta cut Internet connections to stop dissident blogs and other sites that had distributed information about government repression in the wake of September's crushed pro-democracy protests.
China is routinely criticized for its Internet censorship policies and its use of information gleaned from Internet providers to crack down on dissidents.
Even Brazil has inspired Internet privacy debates by demanding that U.S. technology giant Google hand over information about users who're suspected of posting child pornography and other offensive material on its social-networking site Orkut.
"Our concern is that countries that have been the most vocal advocate of changing control of the Internet are not countries that support an open Internet," said Leslie Harris, the president of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonprofit U.S. open-Internet advocacy group.
"It's hard to believe that turning over the Internet to a body subject to negotiations between China's version of the Internet and North Korea's version of the Internet will result in an Internet that's more open and free."
"Should the U.N. gain control of the Internet," the conservative U.S. research center the Heritage Foundation wrote on its Web site, "it would give meddlesome governments the opportunity to censor and regulate the medium until its usefulness as a vehicle for freedom of expression and international competition is crippled."
Such debates have dominated worldwide technology circles for years and are the spark for this week's meeting, the second of five such global forums organized by the United Nations.
Running through Thursday at a beachside hotel in Rio de Janeiro, the Brazil forum will feature panels on other key issues such as blocking online child pornography, expanding Internet access in less developed countries and an array of technical matters.
Yet the fight over U.S. control promises to take center stage. The forum, which was organized partly as a response to international debate about the issue, can't make binding decisions, but it can lay the foundation for policy changes.
At the heart of the controversy is a nonprofit company based in Marina del Rey, Calif., called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which the U.S. government has contracted to help it manage key Internet functions.
Those include regulating Web sites with popular domain names such as .com and .org and creating new top-level domain names. Critics say the arrangement makes internationally popular Web sites subject to U.S. policy on everything from user privacy to obscenity.
Through ICANN, the United States also assigns Internet protocol addresses, which identify computers, routers and other electronic devices worldwide.
Theresa Swinehart, ICANN's vice president of global and strategic participation, said the system had proved itself and warned that changes could threaten the Internet.
She added that the U.N.'s World Summit on the Information Society, in 2003 and 2005, resolved the issue by leaving the system as it is.
"I think the imagination is the limit with the Internet, and we don't want to create inhibitions to what the Internet can create," she said. "Maintaining a single interoperable system is important to keeping the Internet healthy and is more effective than creating multiple systems around the world."
U.S. government officials also argue that keeping the Internet under centralized control is best for users.
When the European Union suggested creating an intergovernmental body to oversee ICANN in 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez responded forcefully.
"Burdensome, bureaucratic oversight is out of place in an Internet structure that has worked so well for many around the globe," they said in a letter.
For many critics of the ICANN system, the main problem is the organization's perceived lack of transparency. They say ICANN shuts out the public when it makes key decisions, such as when it nominates board members, and lacks accountability to the Internet users it serves.
"We feel there would be a very healthy check and balances if there was something independent of the United States and ICANN to oversee the system," said Syracuse University professor Milton Mueller, who's part of the academic policy group the Internet Governance Project.
"As long as the United States holds on to its control, there will always be questions about the system's transparency."
Swinehart said ICANN included global voices by naming experts from around the world to its board and by holding most of its board meetings outside the United States. She said governments and other interested parties contributed to policymaking and that U.S. concerns weren't given more attention than those of other governments.
For Santanna, however, the need for change has been clear in the dispute with Google, which could make news while the U.N. forum is under way.
Google has said it can't meet Brazil's demands for user information because its servers are in the United States and are subject to U.S. privacy laws. After months of dispute, both sides will meet this week in an attempt to reach agreement.
Santanna said the long dispute could have been avoided if there'd been an international body that, in addition to managing the system's technical functions, could resolve such cross-border controversies.
The press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, however, has sent Brazilian officials a letter asking them to "safeguard free expression and personal data" while cracking down on offensive online material.
For Harris, what's at play is the open nature of the Internet, which he argues has made it the powerful tool it is today. That point needs to be stressed, he said, as the U.N. conference also discusses how to make sure that governments and other gatekeepers don't interfere with users' access to information.
"I can post something online tomorrow without going through any middleman and someone else can see it in another part of the world," Harris said. "That's what makes the Internet work."
ON THE WEB
The United Nations will broadcast the meeting
Information on the U.N.'s Internet Governance Forum
The following documents may be of interest:
"CHINA: Journey to the heart of Internet censorship," by Reporters Without Borders
Report of the Working Group on Internet Governance, June 2005