The Bush administration has decided to retain control over the principal computers which control internet traffic in a move likely to prompt global opposition, it was claimed yesterday.
The US had pledged to turn control of the 13 computers known as root servers - which inform web browsers and email programs how to direct internet traffic - over to a private, international body.
But on Thursday the US reversed its position, announcing that it will maintain control of the computers because of growing security threats and the increased reliance on the internet for global communications. A Japanese government official yesterday criticised the move, claiming it will lend momentum to the debate about who controls the information flow online.
"When the internet is being increasingly utilised for private use, by business and so forth, there is a societal debate about whether it's befitting to have one country maintaining checks on that ... It's likely to fuel that debate," said Masahiko Fujimoto, of the ministry of internal affairs and communications' data communications division.
The computers serve as master directories that contain government-approved lists of the roughly 260 suffices used, such as .com or .co.uk. Anyone who uses the web interacts with them every day. But a policy decision by the US could, at a stroke, make all sites ending in a certain suffix unreachable.
Despite many doomsday scenarios, the most recent US decision will have little if any immediate effect on internet users, and given the internet's anarchic nature it may simply represent a desire to assert state control even when it is not possible to do so.
Claudia Bernett, 32, a digital design analyst in New York, said: "Scary as it seems, because of the nature of the internet, I think they'll be hardpressed to create a coherent system that is capable of the kind of monitoring they hope for ... Eventually, the people participating in the system will find the technological means to evade the watchful eye."
Experts say that in the worst-case scenario, countries that refused to accept US control of the main computers could establish their own separate domain name system, with addresses in some places that others would not be able to reach, making the world wide web give way to discrete, regional web domains.
Mr Fujimoto said that is also unlikely because of its complexity, but the US decision will raise serious concerns that will not be assuaged easily. The announcement comes just weeks before a UN panel is set to release a report on internet governance. Some nations want international oversight of the issue but historically the US has maintained the role because it was such a key player in the early years of the internet's development.