The boring and slightly arcane business of managing the Internet will soon be free of government control -- unless the UN gets its way at the grandly named Internet Governance Forum in Athens, Greece, on Monday. Earlier this month, the US Department of Commerce announced it would terminate its oversight of the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) after 2009 and make it independent, run by the private sector.
Whereas the US wants to free ICANN, the UN wants to control it.
If, like most of about a billion users, you have no trouble logging on, setting up a domain name instantly for a few US dollars (US$7, the last time I did it), communicating, buying or selling, then you might wonder what the problem is.
Since the Commerce Department created ICANN in 1998, international pressure has grown to remove theoretical interference from the country that invented the Internet and gave it to the world. Unfortunately much of that pressure comes from countries like Saudi Arabia, North Korea and China that seek very practical interference.
The department has inter-fered occasionally, but not to much effect. The latest brouhaha earlier this year involved blocking a group of Internet entrepreneurs who were seeking to establish the .xxx suffix for pornographic sites.
International pressure, however, led to a fatuous three-year UN consultation called the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which ended inconclusively last year. So they came up with the Internet Governance Forum and this Athens meeting, which has the grandiose title Internet Governance for Development.
What used to be managed unobtrusively by the barely known ICANN will now require "four clusters: a forum, global public policy and oversight, institutional coordination and regional, subregional and national coordination" for a proposed governing Global Internet Council.
Needless to say, meddling will require lots of staff.
If it strikes you that the timing of the US announcement to free ICANN renders the whole reason for convening UN talk-shops utterly redundant, that's because it does.
But a UN process, once started, never stops and its bureaucratic expansion provides platforms for the bogus grievances of the world's more grotesque regimes.
At issue at the Athens meeting are the responsibilities and powers of ICANN, who it must report to and how it sets the rules for Top Level Domain Names like .com, .net, .biz or the recently approved .eu and .asia.
As during WSIS, the debate at the IGF will be dominated by regimes with their own agenda. Vacuous catchwords like equity, security and capacity-building actually cover attempts to reduce the threat that the open Internet poses to oppressive governments. Syria, for example, finds ICANN "not consistent with national sovereignty."
Recent experience in China gives us some insights into such national sovereignty, where companies such as Google, AOL and Yahoo have been required to hand over information about users, including innocuous search history and private e-mails. Crimes include entering a word such as "democracy" into a search engine or visiting dangerous news sites like the BBC.
Combine this with Syrian and Iranian censorship, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's attempts to bury criticism of his 25-year misrule and Cuban President Fidel Castro's ideological opposition to business and you have a frightening mix.
Anything unacceptable to some might soon be off-limits for all -- from political comment to religious discussion -- and affect users around the world under the pretext of banning hate, child pornography or terrorism sites.
A UN Department of Information spokesman Edoardo Bellando said the UN could start acting as the "Internet police" and ensure tighter Internet security, Lehigh University's student newspaper reported him saying in a campus lecture this month.
The EU has, so far, supported UN interference because it would like to tax Internet transactions. Some democratic countries justify interference because of the problems of criminal and civil jurisdiction, of spam and of cyber crime. These, however, have nothing to do with ICANN's role.
The stable and open countries of the UN must now insist that the IGF ignore the ideological obsessions of its more nefarious members and retain ICANN with its proposed new private-sector board.
ICANN should remain the quiet manager of the Internet if it is to remain the resource that we cherish in today's information-driven world.
We can expect UN management to be as successful as its campaigns for peace in Darfur or curbing sex slavery.
Right now, if you have a problem with ICANN, you can go to a civil court in California, but it is impossible to imagine such redress against an international bureaucracy.
The Internet became what it is because of its freedom. For it to continue as the vital resource that it has become, we must keep it free from political control and interference.
Alec van Gelder is a research fellow at International Policy Network, a London think tank.