On The Horizon: Who's Best To Manage Internet Plumbing?

If the Internet is key to economic development, everyone wants a say.
David Post
Bradford C. Brown

With the bravado of Annie Oakley, Paul Twomey, president of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, flew to Geneva, according to The New York Times, to observe preparations for the World Summit on the Information Society, a U.N. conference on Internet governance. To his chagrin, the United Nations said, "No, you can't," and he was barred from the meeting. "At ICANN, anybody can attend meetings, appeal decisions, or go to the ombudsman," Twomey was quoted in the Times. "And here I am outside a U.N. meeting room where diplomats, most of whom know little about the technical aspects, are deciding in a closed forum how 750 million people should reach the Internet."

Inadvertently, Twomey's comment probably illustrates why the meeting was being held in the first place. The rest of the world evidently isn't convinced that an American-based nonprofit, backed by the U.S. government, should necessarily be in charge of these "technical aspects."

The man formerly in charge of these technical aspects, Jon Postel, was an engineer, Internet pioneer, and legend. The Postel Center at the University of Southern California School of Engineering describes Postel as "essentially a shepherd of the Internet." Part of what he created was the system under which domain names and numbers are managed so that messages can find their way around the global network. From the domain-name vacuum left by his death in 1998, ICANN emerged as a new, quasi-private California nonprofit corporation backed by the U.S. government.

ICANN's mission is to "coordinate at the overall level"--sounds like George Carlin helped draft the mission statement--"the global Internet systems of unique identifiers and in particular to ensure the stable and secure operation of the Internet's unique identifier systems."

It sounds innocuous enough; as Twomey put it in the Times article: "We aren't the government of the Internet. We're responsible for the plumbing, that's all."

The problem, though, is that the world is catching on to the fact that there's liquid gold running through those pipes and that the "plumbers" are the ones who might be in a position to control how it runs, where, and to whom. If the Internet is the Holy Grail of economic development and global integration, as many people, particularly in the developing world, now believe (possibly correctly), everybody wants a say in how it works.

The idea of the United Nations taking charge of the Internet's naming and numbering system strikes many (including the U.S. delegation) as falling somewhere between unwise and idiotic--and, it should be noted, all the World Summit delegates could agree on was a plan to think more about the plan.

But that shouldn't obscure the fact that we're at the beginning of a serious global debate about how the Internet plumbing gets done. The United States and ICANN must make the case that they, and not the United Nations, are best-suited for managing these critical tasks. That's not going to be easy. Some ideas on how it can be accomplished will be the subject of our next column.

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 [email protected]. Bradford C. Brown is chairman of the National Center for Technology and Law at the George Mason University School of Law. Reach him at [email protected].

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