An attempt by developing countries to put management of the internet under United Nations auspices is likely to be shelved at next month's world information summit in Geneva - but the issue is now firmly on the international agenda, summit sources say.
It will be one of the main bones of contention this week as government negotiators and non-governmental organisations descend on Geneva for the final round of preparatory talks on the draft declaration and plan of action due to be endorsed by heads of state and government at the summit on December 10-12.
However, UN officials say they see no compromise emerging. They expect governments to decide instead to continue talks on internet governance with the aim of reaching accord by 2005, when the second stage of the two-part summit is due to take place in Tunisia.
"They're no longer going to try to agree on this," a UN official said last week.
Poorer nations such as Brazil, India, South Africa, China and Saudi Arabia, as well as some richer ones, are growing dissatisfied with the workings of California-based Icann (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the semi-private internet address regulator set up five years ago.
The critics argue that the internet is a public resource that should be managed by national governments and, at an international level, by an intergovernmental body such as the International Telecommunications Union, the UN agency that is organising the information summit.
However, the US and the European Commission are staunchly defending the Icann model, which is based on minimal regulation and commercial principles. Icann members are predominantly drawn from industrialised countries and the established internet community.
Defenders of the status quo say handing over power to governments could threaten the untrammelled flow of information and ideas that many see as the very essence of the borderless internet.
But these arguments appear to be losing force against the emergence of new challenges such as unwanted advertising ("spam"), privacy and security worries, hate speech and child pornography, which have convinced many governments of the need for international regulation and enforcement.
The question of internet governance, which erupted at a relatively late stage in the preparatory summit negotiations, is just one of many issues negotiators must try to resolve this week. Rich and poor countries are also at odds over creation of a "digital solidarity fund" that would finance investment to bridge the "digital divide" in access to information and communications technologies.
Other unresolved disputes concern the balance between intellectual property protection and access to information, the role of the media, and acceptable boundaries to freedom of expression.