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Commentary
7/25/2006
02:55 PM
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Who Owns The Internet?

The key questions, which I hope are addressed in the hearing this week, are exactly what the Department of Commerce originally intended when it decided to work with ICANN back in 1998, whether those intentions have changed, and whether the requirements of the American business community have changed--or perhaps should change in its own best interests.

The U.S. government is commencing to begin thinking about making ICANN a private entity. The self-imposed deadline for privatization is September 30, and a hearing about whether and how to actually make this happen is scheduled for this week at the Commerce Department.As things stand now, Commerce can still put the brakes on the plan. But it's considering the switchover, which would mean ICANN wouldn't need to care whether the U.S. government wants it to do things like, say, create an "adult" domain. This is something that's been under consideration a few times already, but that ICANN has nixed, some say because of our government's prudishness about all things X-rated.

(In a truly shameful side note, a new report from the Internet Watch Foundation says half of all child pornography photos available online originate from the United States. So perhaps an adult domain name is worth a shot if it will help eliminate or contain this filth, even by just a bit.)

The European Union has been particularly vocal in its criticism of the way ICANN runs now. In fact, lots of foreign voices have been raised in support of the privatization idea, pointing out that something as critical to worldwide commerce as the Internet shouldn't be dominated or controlled by one country. Others, though, say the U.S. government invented the Internet (back when it was Arpanet, a packet-switched network used to share research among universities), and so it's only fair that America retain control over a resource it created to begin with.

I can see both sides of this, but I'm wondering what bad stuff the naysayers feel will happen if ICANN were to become completely private. (It's already quasi-private, but more on that in a moment.) When you get right down to it, I'm thinking the major objection is that the competitive interests of American companies won't be quite as protected without the Commerce Department overseeing ICANN.

The interesting thing, though, is that ICANN already functions as a mini-United Nations. Out of its 20 board members, perhaps five hail from the United States. (I say "perhaps" because not all board members' biographies are available online, particularly those who were just elected to serve.)

The other 15 ICANN board members hail from countries as diverse as Australia, Bulgaria, Chile, Germany, Japan, China, Canada, and Kenya. As for staffers, they represent seven countries. ICANN already has offices in and holds meetings in many other countries. It consults with governments around the world.

And all of this was set up from the get-go, when Commerce ceded domain name management to ICANN in 1998. From the very beginning, ICANN was created as an international, not-for-profit entity that would function independently of the U.S. government. The original bylaws state that just like at pretty much any other organization, the ICANN board is responsible for making decisions about the business of the group, with input from many constituencies.

Also, in the very first agreement spelling out the responsibilities between the two parties, it's pretty clear that ICANN was set up as a private-public partnership. In the original memo of understanding, most of Commerce's responsibilities were framed as consultative, technical collaboration, and the like, with some squishy language about Commerce's "oversight" of ICANN. What that means exactly--and more importantly what it meant at the time the agreement was created--isn't really explained in this document.

So what, exactly, will change if ICANN becomes completely private? I can't see all that much difference from how it operates now. It's going to continue to be messy, with lots of arguments over general policy and technical decisions. There will continue to be politics to the extent that there are politics in just about any organization, no less one that's international in scope.

The key questions, which I hope are addressed in the hearings this week, are exactly what the Department of Commerce originally intended when it decided to work with ICANN back in 1998, whether those intentions have changed, and whether the requirements of the American business community have changed--or perhaps should change in its own best interests.

The goals stated then were: The Department of Commerce intends to "enter an agreement with a not-for-profit entity to establish a process to transition current U.S. Government management of the Domain Name System to such an entity based on the principles of stability, competition, bottom-up coordination, and representation."

Were those goals for U.S. companies only, or for the global community at large? If ICANN and the Domain Name System were intended to help American companies only, then what happens with the foreign subsidiaries of American companies? And if these subsidiaries are included under the umbrella, how do you keep companies based elsewhere out of the ICANN-protected layer of the Internet?

It should be an interesting hearing, I'm thinking.

So where do you stand? Do you agree with the notion of ICANN's privatization, or are you opposed and why? Weigh in below.The key questions, which I hope are addressed in the hearing this week, are exactly what the Department of Commerce originally intended when it decided to work with ICANN back in 1998, whether those intentions have changed, and whether the requirements of the American business community have changed--or perhaps should change in its own best interests.

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