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October 14, 2005updated 19 Aug 2016 10:11am

Who Really Runs the Internet?

Guest blog by Kevin Murphy:Paul Mockapetris, who invented the internet’s domain name system, was asked a few years ago what else he wished he could have invented. He answered: “A directory system for the internet that wouldn't be controlled by the

By Jason Stamper Blog

Guest blog by Kevin Murphy:

Paul Mockapetris, who invented the internet’s domain name system, was asked a few years ago what else he wished he could have invented. He answered: “A directory system for the internet that wouldn’t be controlled by the politicians, lawyers and bureaucrats.” Tough luck, Paul.

Not only is the DNS controlled by politicians, lawyers and bureaucrats, but politicians, lawyers and bureaucrats from all over the world have been spending vast amounts of time and effort arguing over which politicians, lawyers and bureaucrats should control it in future.

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Never was this more apparent than two weeks ago, when diplomats from 153 national governments gathered in Geneva in a last-ditch attempt to come to agreement on the matter of “internet governance” and who should control the DNS.

They failed, again, and as the meeting close they scheduled another last-ditch attempt meeting for immediately prior to the UN World Summit on the Information Society, which will be held in Tunis, Tunisia in November.

The International Telecommunications Union, which is trying to pry the DNS from the clutches of the US-backed Internet Corp for Assigned Names and Numbers, called the meetings “grueling” but predicted Tunis will be the “Summit of Solutions”.

While the September meeting, called PrepCom-3, did manage to achieve consensus on no-brainers like nations having sovereign policy-setting rights in their own country and the private sector having a role to play, more contentious issues remain unresolved.

Most countries that have publicly expressed an opinion want WSIS to set up some kind of multilateral forum where governments can set international policies on matters such as cybercrime, cross-border e-commerce and anything else that crops up in future.

The major sticking point is the DNS and the pool of IP addresses, both of which are managed by ICANN under contract with the US government.

Many countries want this relationship dissolved and replaced with one where ICANN or ICANN’s successor reports to this hypothetical multilateral UN-linked forum.

And the ITU, faced with the inevitable transition to a fully-IP telecommunications world, wants desperately to be ICANN’s successor.

The US is fiercely resistant to this change. Ambassador David Gross, representing the US at PrepCom-3, repeatedly stated that the US’s three-month-old policy of overseeing ICANN indefinitely is non-negotiable.

The anti-US camp has been led most vociferously by Brazil, China, and Iran, and supported by the likes of Cuba. With the possible exception of Brazil, none of those countries are on George Bush’s Christmas card list.

So what’s the big deal? All that is at stake, in essence, is control of two small databases, only a few hundred kilobytes of data.

But they are among the few logically central parts of the internet. One contains the authoritative list of over 250 top-level internet domains, generic TLDs such as .com and .biz, and country-code TLDs such as .uk, .cn and .us. This is known as the root zone file.

The other, broadly speaking, lists which IP addresses have been assigned to which ISPs, so no two computers can have the same address. Collectively, these are known as the IANA databases. Both are currently controlled by ICANN.

Conventional wisdom has it that these files could easily be managed by one person. IANA was, in fact, for many years, managed by one person. The key question, as wiser folk than us have pointed out before, is: “Who tells that guy what to do?”

On Monday, David Conrad, former chief technology officer of Nominum Inc, became That Guy, when he took over as IANA general manager from Doug Barton, who quit earlier this summer. He has a small staff at ICANN’s headquarters in California.

Procedurally speaking, the IANA manager is told what changes to make to the IANA TLD database by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a unit of the US Department of Commerce.

NTIA just tells Conrad to do whatever the ICANN board of directors resolves. It has never vetoed an ICANN decision, but theoretically it could. And there’s no telling whether ICANN has ever refrained from a decision based on the quiet threat of a veto.

It’s worked like this since 1998, and it works reasonably well, although there are frequent complaints and there have been incidents, such as the time last year where a breakdown in communication led to Libya disappearing from the DNS for a week.

The US fear appears to be that if the NTIA was replaced with the UN or some UN-linked body, the door would be open for nations that do not share American ideals to impose, say, freedom of speech restrictions on DNS policy.

In addition, many fear that a UN-linked body may end up a weighty bureaucracy, slowing down ICANN policy-making even more. Until recently, the US has overseen ICANN with a light touch.

There are surely political reasons too. In the US nowadays, any mention of the UN wielding power is treated by liberals and conservatives alike with the same kind of patriotic blustering as you hear from Britons when the EU attempts to regulate the length of their bananas.

It seems to be quite acceptable lately to invoke the UN oil-for-food scandal, say, as a reason why the US should retain oversight of the internet, while cheerfully ignoring the multitude of brazen corruptions in America’s own political system.

That said, very few Westerners would argue that a more suitable venue for managing the internet is a body that could so easily be steered by censorial, authoritarian regimes like China and Iran (like, say, PrepCom-3 was).

It would go against the principles of openness, designed into the protocols and enthusiastically embraced by those who use the network to communicate, on which the internet has operated for the last decade.

But, equally, unilateral US oversight of ICANN leaves the policymaking process open to capture by the views of those in power. Currently, that means politicians who are frequently influenced by the lobbying of right-wing Christian activists.

In August, the NTIA broke seven years of relative silence on the matter of deploying new top-level domains, when it asked ICANN to delay final approval of .xxx, a proposed new TLD that would serve the pornography industry.

It did so because of a letter-writing campaign orchestrated by conservative lobbyists such as Focus on the Family (the name is misleading — it’s a religious group), which has the ear of the Bush administration.

If a hypothetical UN-linked ICANN overseer could be criticized for being open to steering by un-democratic regimes, could not US oversight be criticized for being open to steering by groups that more secular nations consider, at best, fringe?

Of course, it’s not just the US that has concerns over .xxx. Brazil, for one, has criticized ICANN for its decision to approve the domain, although whether that was a moral stance or a cheap political shot at the US is debatable.

The US’s opponents have other fears, too. What if the US enters a trade embargo with Bulgaria, say, and unilaterally orders IANA to take .bg off of the internet? It’s hard to imagine, but it’s technically possible under the current arrangements.

Also, ICANN’s contract with the NTIA requires it to approach nations to sign contracts acknowledging ICANN’s powers. As long as ICANN is beholden to the US government, that seems like an unpalatable dilution of sovereignty to many nations.

They’re also not happy with what they see as ICANN’s Western bias. One observer told us recently that some Asians get irked by the perception that ICANN thinks it “has Asia on board” to a given policy if it secures the support of Japan alone.

The internet has been a mass medium in most of the developed world for about a decade, but ICANN, IANA, and the Internet Engineering Task Force still hasn’t figured out a safe, standard way for Koreans, for example, to have URLs resolve in their own language.

To be sure, ICANN is not exclusively American. The members of its board of directors are drawn from all over the world, a policy enshrined in its bylaws. Not all its staff is American, and its president is an Australian former civil servant.

In addition, it has an influential Government Advisory Committee in which any nation is free to participate. ICANN’s board has never overruled the advice the GAC doles out, unlike the advice of some of its other constituencies.

But some governments want more of a role. Hence, the impasse at PrepCom-3.

Latest indications are that support for the US position is dissolving. The big shocker at PrepCom-3 was the decision by the European Union, represented at the meeting by the UK, to jump ship and throw its lot in with the opponents of US unilateralism.

The US still appears to have the support of the Japanese and Canadians. But other than that, its position has become a minority one. Not even the Brits are on its side this time.

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