US control over how Internet addresses are assigned -- defining how people around the world access e-mail and Web sites -- dominated discussions as a major UN conference on the Internet opened on Monday.
While few participants at the Internet Governance Forum attacked the US directly, most were well aware of the role Americans play in crafting domain name policies, including whether and how to assign suffixes in languages besides English.
"The Internet is transnational. It can't be under the authority of one country," Brazilian Culture Minister Gilberto Gil said. "The Internet should be the territory of everyone."
The forum, an annual conference to discuss issues including spam and cheaper Web access, has no decision-making powers. At most, those seeking change can use the conference to pressure the US to step back.
At issue is control over domain names like "com" and "org," which computers need to find Web sites and route e-mail. By controlling the core systems, the US indirectly influences much of what appears online.
The US government, which funded much of the Internet's early development, delegated domain-name policies to a Marina del Rey, California-based nonprofit, the Internet Corp for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), over which the US retains veto power.
Many countries have complained US influence wasn't discussed enough at the first Internet Governance Forum last year in Athens, and preceded this year's conference with panel devoted to "critical Internet resources."
That meeting was supposed to cover everything from telecommunications links to technical standards, but the main focus has been on the administration of domain names by ICANN and the US government.
Critics fear that putting ICANN under the management of a broad organization like the UN would allow governments to further politicize the Web and more easily impose censorship.
By changing just a few database entries, for instance, all Web sites for a specific country -- such as ".mm" in Myanmar -- could instantly disappear.
Paul Twomey, ICANN's Australian president and chief executive officer insisted the organization is "international," noting only three of its 15 board members are from the US.
"High politics" are fueling the debate over American influence at the regulator, he said.
"The discussion of the role of ICANN has gone on for some time, but there's no consensus for change," he said, adding that the debate distracts from more important issues, like increasing Internet access for the world's poor.
Just 1 billion, or 17 percent of the world's 6 billion people, have access the Internet, Twomey said.
The four-day forum -- which has attracted more than 1,000 government, business and civic group representatives -- will also address network security, child pornography, access costs and rights issues.