BRUSSELS The European Commission called on Wednesday for a dilution of U.S. influence over the organisation of the Internet, a sign of tension following snooping exposed by former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden.
The European Union's executive arm stopped short of demanding greater government control as some countries like China and Russia have pushed for.
Instead, it demanded transparency and less influence of the United States over the institutions controlling the mechanics of the Internet, such as assigning web page addresses that allow computers to locate one another on the network.
Currently, ICANN, a California-based organisation operating under a contract with the U.S. government, oversees the introduction of new internet addresses.
In the coming years, hundreds of new so-called top-level domain addresses such as .london or .sex will be added, offering newcomers more choice of location online as web usage grows.
"Europe must contribute to a credible way forward for global internet governance," said Neelie Kroes, the commissioner in charge of telecoms policy. "Europe must play a strong role in defining what the net of the future looks like."
She backed the 'multi-stakeholder' approach to governance, supported by the United States and industry, under which non-governmental organisations, countries, academics and the private sector collaborate on the network's functioning.
The success of Kroes in pushing for a greater say will depend on the degree to which the alliance of 28 countries in the European Union supports such a push.
"The U.S. government welcomes the strong and continued commitment of the European Commission to the multistakeholder model of Internet governance," Lawrence Strickling, U.S. assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, said in a statement.
"We will work with the Commission and other Internet stakeholders to make multistakeholder governance more inclusive, especially to support the engagement of countries in the developing world."
TEST OF RESOLVE
Allegations of vast U.S. spying programs have complicated EU-U.S. ties at a delicate moment in transatlantic relations, as Brussels and Washington are negotiating a free-trade pact that would encompass almost half the world's economy.
Lawmakers in the European Parliament threatened on Wednesday to withhold their consent for this trade pact over data privacy concerns.
A committee said data protection rules should be excluded from the trade talks and negotiated separately with the U.S., adding that "the fight against terrorism can never be a justification for untargeted, secret or even illegal mass surveillance programmes."
Europe's resolve on Internet governance will be tested at a series of major conferences this year, including one in April in Brazil, which has emerged as a major critic of international surveillance carried out by the U.S. National Security Agency.
Late last year, the European Union backed down from threats to suspend agreements granting the United States access to European data, rejecting calls for a tougher stance over alleged U.S. spying.
"Governments already have a significant role within ICANN and it will be enhanced in the future," said Nigel Hickson, ICANN vice president for Europe. "This internationalisation was in train before Snowden."
(Additional reporting by Leila Abboud in Paris and Alina Selyukh in Washington; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Marguerita Choy)