net.wars: ICANN? No, you can't.

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 18 November 2005

Ten years of in-fighting over who should run the Internet and this week's World Summit on the Information Society ended with a deal to create the Internet Governance Forum, which will have the international representation everyone except the US wanted Internet governance to have - but won't be able to do anything. The "independent cyberspace" dreamed of by John Perry Barlow [right] remains elusive.

Wendy M Grossman

For the moment, ICANN wins, in the sense that it gets to continue overseeing the operation of the domain name system. ICANN has many critics, both outside and (formerly) inside its organization, but in the end although many people have suggested alternatives to the current system, none of these have gained enough traction to become a threat. ICANN was operationally safe; now it's safe by international policy as well.

There have been some good analyses of this deal, notably by Canadian intellectual property specialist Michael Geist and ICANNWatch, and basically they boil down to the same thing: the US keeps ICANN but the issues that WSIS was really created to address remain unsolved. We are no closer to agreeing on what sovereignty a government should have over its country code namespace, how to solve global problems such as spam, cybercrime, the digital divide, or even just the basic question of what governing the Internet means.

It's logical if the US thinks that the longer it can keep the oversight of ICANN to itself the more likely it is that eventually that will just become the permanent status quo.

The thing is that long-term it's hanging onto an asset of decaying value. The domain name system that ICANN oversees is vital when it comes to using email and/or the Web, but it is irrelevant to the newer areas of big growth: instant messaging, peer-to-peer networks, Internet telephony, and the next big thing, IPTV. And, if you recall, there's general agreement that email is broken (because of spam) and URLs increasingly only matter as search results to click on. When this battle over Internet governance began, the Web was just beginning to emerge as the first successful commercial use for the Internet, and domain names were the key to success. The organization that controlled the domain name system, therefore, was the ultimate in Internet power. No more: the longer the fight goes on, the less valuable the spoils will be.

That said, it's still understandable that countries like China and Brazil do not want their country code domains to be overseen by an organization that, ultimately, might decide to obey hostile instructions from the White House to redelegate the country's domain or impose restrictions on how it may be used or what kind of traffic it can receive or send.

Every time I write something like that, I get screeds of angry reader email yelling that the US should not give away the Internet because "We built it." This idea is of course wrong; the US only built *some* of the Internet – the part that actually is in the US. A substantial portion of the technology involved was created either by researchers outside the US or by US-based international groups. The rest of the world had to pay far more than Americans did for equivalent connections. Saying that the US owns the Internet is equivalent to saying Britain owns the global postal system and therefore should not allow international oversight of its operation.

A lot of people think that in the beginning the Internet had no policy: that it was wild and lawless and dangerous. I'n fact, the reverse is true. The people who created the Internet had public goals in mind as well as technical ones, and they built protocols and applications that specifically supported their values for freedom of speech and information-sharing. The Internet now is far more lawless, wild, and dangerous than it ever was before because far more people are on it and that includes more criminals and other "bad actors". The domain name system was invented in 1983 by this same sort of process: its inventor, Paul Mockapetris, still talks about the fierce battles over whether or not to create .com, part of a wider struggle over what the DNS's structure should mean.

The early Internet had a strong distrust of governmental involvement (even though the military funded the early development of networking technologies), which reached its apogee in 1996, when John Perry Barlow [above,  right] launched a widely read (and as widely deemed to be silly) document he dubbed A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. But the Internet now is too vital a part of a nation's economic infrastructure for governments to take no interest. Yes, we want technology to proceed apace without six governmental committees debating it for a century or so first. Yes, we want governments to stop making bad and silly laws that affect the Internet and related technologies. But most people also want the Internet they use to be less plagued by spam, fraud, and viruses than it is now, and most people want the Internet to be an engine for social justice rather than one for further division. So far, technology by itself has failed to solve these problems.

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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).