net.wars: Got root?

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 08 July 2005

It's become a commonplace after disasters strike to note how well the Internet worked. Yesterday's London attacks were, of course, extremely localised – in most parts of London you couldn't tell anything had happened, except that of you couldn't travel anywhere. (Although even that isn't so unusual). The cellphone networks were switched to emergency mode for a while, and I had some trouble reaching the US on a cable phone, but the Internet never missed a beat.

Wendy M Grossman

That is, of course, the stability the Internet was designed for, but it always seems amazing when that sort of intention is fulfilled. It's even more surprising when you consider that the Internet was built as a cooperative, and much of its design happened because a majority thought a particular idea was good enough to adopt.

It's more surprising than that when you reflect that for at least the last ten years there's been a power struggle going on over who should control the heart of the Internet: the process by which domain names and IP addresses are assigned and administered. It seems a trivial matter, but the fact that you can type in a Web address and wind up in the right place is due to a bit of centralised organisation so that all the Internet's routers read the name and associate it with the same numbered address (since numbers are what the computers use) and associate that numbered address with the same machine. Because names have meaning to humans, most of the fighting has been over how those should get assigned and who should own which name; but of course underneath it's the numbers that really matter.

A few months ago, Red Herring published the best explanation in plain English of what's going on behind the electrons that I've ever seen. Finally, we can understand "the WSIS process" that net.wars has covered before, in "Who's in charge?"  and (my favourite headline ever) ".net wars." All this convergence of Internet Protocol and telephone networks has left the ITU kind of stuck: it's not involved in any of the Internet's central functions, and what's its future going to be? And while Red Herring's writer doesn't mention the history, you can go back to 1995 and find that the ITU was at the centre of a plan to revamp the domain name system's administration.

That plan attracted a lot of complaints from all sorts of stakeholders, and instead ICANN was formed with the idea that once it had met conditions laid down by the Department of Commerce it would become independent.

Fractal time. No one likes ICANN (I'm sorry, guys, but that's the truth; deal with it). Everyone hates ITU (ditto). The WSIS working group is preparing for its next meeting, in September. Meanwhile, a couple of weeks ago, the Department of Commerce quietly announced it was  not going to relinquish control its ultimate control of ICANN. In which case, I supposed WSIS can process all it wants, but the US will still, ultimately, be in charge.

Every time I write about this, I get email berating me because "the US invented the Internet" and therefore "shouldn't give it away". Well, there's inventing things, there's building things, and there's running things. American scientists invented key parts of the technology that underpins the Internet (and so did others in other countries, the UK and France, especially), but the US did not build the whole thing. Huge investments have been made by businesses and governments all around the world. In any case, even a patent would have expired by now. The Internet belongs to everyone who uses it. Who should run it is a practical question, not an emotional one. No one country runs the telephone network or the postal system either.

So, to return to our international drama, you can see why, say, China, would find it a bit irritating that they should, ultimately, require the agreement of the US Department of Commerce if they want to redelegate the .cn country code domain.

Equally, ICANN's history so far suggests that it does need some strings of accountability somewhere. The organisation has eliminated Internet-wide elections for at-large members of its board, its budget keeps expanding, and when it decides to charge an extra 75 cents for every registration in .net, who's to stop them if there's no outside body watching?

"It's good to have ICANN have someone somewhere looking over its shoulder and even theoretically able to pull the plug if it were to go really rogue," says Miami law professor Michael Froomkin, who runs ICANNwatch

At the same time, you can see why the ITU's system might be unacceptable to the US, because it represents such a rapid and complete diminution of its control. The ITU allocates one vote per country. The US, Luxembourg, Nigeria, it's all the same. What if they gang up on us? What if governments send people who are technically inept?

So, who should be in charge? The Internet Society? A committee made up of Internet pioneers from every country? Curiously, that would look not unlike the ITU's original proposal

Meanwhile, the Internet, like London, will muddle through.

America, not an imperial power, no no no... - You can discuss this article on our discussion board.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).