Keeping Control - InformationWeek

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10/28/2005
08:20 PM
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Keeping Control

The United States needs to cede some control over the Internet. Just not too much.

The Internet may be a worldwide network of data and ideas, but when it comes to the basic plumbing, all decisions flow back to one place: the United States. One U.S. organization--and, ultimately, the U.S. government--oversees the creation of new dot-whatever top-level domains and controls the vital Domain Name System, which maps domain names like www.amazon.com to IP addresses like 207.171.175.29.

Some countries around the world have come to resent this arrangement, as the Internet's success turned this once-thankless administrative job into a potentially powerful role for influencing what happens online. The issue likely will come to a boil Nov. 16 in Tunisia, where a United Nations-sponsored gathering dubbed the World Summit on the Information Society will provide a forum for other countries to call for their share of influence. The United States will have to yield to international pressure and find reasonable ways to give other countries more input. But don't expect it to give up real control any time soon, not while the alternatives offer less-than-comforting guarantees of the Internet's continued reliability.

Many U.S. businesses are taking that "it ain't broke" policy line. "Our concern is to keep this thing that's working so well working well into the future," says Andrew McLaughlin, Google Inc.'s senior policy counsel. After all, the current governance model has proven flexible and fast-moving enough to keep up with the Internet's explosive growth the past seven years.

Countries are pushing for change through no less than the United Nations. The Working Group on Internet Governance in a June report argues Internet governance should be "multilateral, transparent, and democratic" and that "no single government should have a pre-eminent role in relation to international Internet governance." The working group is made up of 40 people from government and business, and while it includes countries such as Brazil, France, and the United Kingdom, it's the criticism from representatives of undemocratic countries such as Cuba, China, and Saudi Arabia that draw the most ire from the Bush administration.

Internet governance covers a lot of ground, from policies to technology. The policy questions always have been controversial, exposing differing views about intellectual property, cybercrime, taxation, dispute resolution, and freedom of expression across borders and cultures. But governance also encompasses open technical standards such as TCP/IP that make the Internet work and resource allocation such as the IP address space and the Domain Name System.

It's in this administrative capacity where the dispute over U.S. control has flared recently, and a spat over creating the .xxx domain to host Internet pornography is partly to blame.

.XXX Sends A Message
The process of allocating blocks of IP addresses and determining new top-level domains is run by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Numbers and Names, a California nonprofit that operates under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Commerce, which has veto power over its decisions. ICANN also oversees the Domain Name System. Controlling these resources, particularly the DNS root servers, conveys power. ICANN could, in theory, block certain ranges of domains or IP addresses, blacking out portions of the Net.

The Bush administration's ham-handed approach to the .xxx domain may have fueled the recent international uproar for greater Internet control. The administration didn't veto the .xxx domain, but on Aug. 11, Assistant Commerce Secretary Michael Gallagher sent a letter to ICANN board chairman Vinton Cerf--then senior VP of technology strategy at MCI, now a top executive at Google--asking ICANN "to ensure that the concerns of all members of the Internet community" are considered before introducing it. That led ICANN to delay a decision, though contract negotiations are continuing with potential .xxx registrars.

The government's request for a delay signaled to other countries that they, too, could politicize the Internet's core administrative and technical functions to serve national policies, contends the Internet Governance Project, a consortium of academics.

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