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AMERICANS RULE THE WEB - FOR NOW

Source: Associated Press

Posted on June 27, 2000

      Say "hello" to a World Wide Web that is truly that. From content to culture, the Internet - born of American government need - is rapidly losing its U.S. flavor as more computer users connect from abroad.

      Some U.S.-based search directories now accomodate speakers of languages such as French and Chinese. Sports sites highlight soccer rather than baseball. A few American e-commerce services, such as Amazon.com, accept payment by EuroCard.

      These changes come as the United States cedes more control over Internet addresses and other policies. The California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers will elect officers by continent this fall, as one way to limit the influence of U.S. representatives.

      "There's more awareness on the part of Americans than the Internet isn't ours alone," said Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "We're not the only ones out there."

      As a creation of the Defense Department and U.S. universities, the Internet at first drew mostly American bureaucrats and academics.

      Though its founders assigned domain names for some 250 countries - such as .uk for the United Kingdom or .no for Norway - U.S. domination continued even when the Net became more commercial.

      "If the U.S. could have invented a device to export their culture and their policies and the whole fabric of the American experiment, they couldn't have done better," said Don Heath, president of the nonprofit Internet Society in Reston, Va.

      A strong private sector made this domination possible, said David Colton at the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va. Private phone lines in this country allow cheap connections to the Net, and business entrepreneurs provide money for risky start-ups.

      With few users outside the United States, foreign companies had little incentive to produce their own content. And with scant local content, foreign residents had little incentive to connect.

      As recently as a year ago, many Europeans avoided the Internet, viewing it as "an American toy," said Liesbeth Hop, president of Pro Active International, an Internet research group based in Amsterdam.

      Most U.S.-based retail sites are in English and deal in U.S. dollars. They also typically require credit cards, she said, even though Europeans are used to billing or cash on delivery.

      However, foreign businesses have been busily moving onto the Internet, especially in the travel industry. "It's still considered a very American network, though we are making it ours at the moment," Hop said.

      And programmers around the world are developing software to translate text into other languages, although there still are kinks that make mistakes such as changing Bill Gates to "invoice of fences."

      Global Reach, a marketing firm in San Francisco, found English the native language for only half the online population. Researchers at Angus Reid Group in Vancouver, British Columbia, estimate that the U.S. online population recently dropped below 50 percent of the world's total for the first time.

      That proportion will keep shrinking, said Gus Schattenberg, an Angus Reid vice president.

      The Internet Engineering Task Force, a U.S.-heavy standards group, is studying an alphabet with accent marks and non-Roman characters; a major hurdle is existing equipment that fits only the world of English.

      Even the U.S. legal climate is under attack. The European Union allows each member to stop U.S. companies from collecting personal data on the Internet unless the United States passes stronger privacy laws.




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