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On The Horizon: Internet's Openness Is What Makes It Work

ICANN needs to walk the walk and focus on the Internet's plumbing.

David Post
Bradford C. Brown

Memo to: Paul Twomey, ICANN president and CEO

Re: U.N. takeover of Domain Name System management

We were talking in the Feb. 9 issue of InformationWeek about the recent World Summit on the Information Society, a U.N. conference on Internet governance and efforts there to obtain for the United Nations a larger role in the management of the Domain Name System, the critical plumbing consisting of interlocking servers, databases, and routing tables that ensure Internet messages get where they're supposed to go (see "Who's Best To Manage Internet Plumbing?" Feb. 9, p. 84).

It was inevitable that ICANN and the naming system would become geopolitical footballs. Governments around the world have come to realize how much power resides in this network, how resistant it is to ordinary forms of regulation and control, and how the databases comprising the naming system make up the one critical resource around which all else revolves and hence the one point of centralized control.

While this most recent U.N. effort came to nothing, the warning signs are clear: Fending off a concerted effort to take over this critical management function isn't going to be easy.

We're on your side on this one; putting Internet infrastructure into the hands of the United Nations is a bad idea. Once the world's politicians get ahold of this network, it will become a tool to keep the powerful in power and maintain the status quo. Plain old garden-variety bungling by bureaucrats in Geneva may well do serious damage to what might be a more delicate ecosystem than we realize.

Your job is to articulate this as plainly as possible. You could do worse than to start with the notion that the Internet exists today, in large measure, precisely because the United Nations, and institutions like it, weren't involved in its development. There's a reason the TCP/IP protocols conquered the networking universe--they're open, they're transparent, they're flexible, and they do only one thing: deliver packets from one place to another as directed and as efficiently as possible. Keep the network simple and policy-neutral. Don't make it solve the difficult global problems of free speech, intellectual property, privacy, anonymity, and all the rest. Just keep those packets movin'.

TCP/IP's phenomenal growth is a direct result of this policy neutrality: How else could the hundreds of thousands of Internet service providers in every country have adopted the standard? This remarkable consensus could only have been reached because we didn't have to agree on policy matters to hook up to the global network.

ICANN needs to walk this walk. Concentrate on the plumbing, unglamorous though it may be. Leave the policy-making, regulation, and Internet governance alone. ICANN has dropped the ball on the technical coordination front--ensuring the security of the root servers, for instance, and opening the domain space to new top-level domains (such as .com, .org, and the rest). Get on top of that. The bureaucrats don't understand those issues and hopefully will leave you alone. It's the best, and possibly only, hope, we're afraid.

David Post is a Temple University law professor and senior fellow at the National Center for Technology and Law at the George Mason University School of Law. Reach him at Bradford C. Brown is chairman of the National Center for Technology and Law at the George Mason University School of Law. Reach him at

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