Gee, when did we give away the Internet? (An analysis of news about WSIS)
by Andy Oram
Related link: http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,61527,00.html
I've been following the recent news on the
World Summit on the Information Society,
and it's getting really bizarre. The Wired article cited above is one
example of out of the out-of-this-world coverage on the World Summit;
I heard a similar spin yesterday on a radio show that often shares
material with the BBC (but I haven't seen a story about WSIS on the
BBC Web site yet).
What king or dictator or bureaucrat has signed the document giving
power over the Internet to one organization or another? Did I miss the
One laughable aspect of news reportage is that the founders and
leaders of ICANN always avowed, with the utmost unction, that they
were not trying to make policy decisions and were simply tinkering
with technical functions on the Internet. Of course, there is rarely
such a thing as a merely technical function, and that truth has been
borne out by the effects of ICANN's policies on "intellectual
property" and on the allocation of domain names in general. Perhaps
it's good for people to be talking openly of ruling the Internet.
But, in whatever ways ICANN has managed to wield its three-pronged
fork (domain names, addresses, and assigned numbers such as
protocols), it has never come close to being master of the Internet.
Now that the mainstream media have announced that the Internet is up
for grabs, they are presenting the debate falsely as a two-sided fight
between ICANN and the
International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
That body that has regulated telecommunications for over a century,
eventually came under the auspices of the United Nations, and has been
searching for several years for a way to gain new relevancy in the
Internet era. (I wrote an href="http://www.praxagora.com/andyo/ar/govern_itu.html">article
on one of their forays some time ago.) It has never gotten anywhere
The WSIS meeting has generated the most news coverage of the ITU I've
ever seen, so it must already be a success for them. If they can bully
the U.S. government and ICANN enough to wrest some piece of the ICANN
treasure from its grasp, I suppose they will consider the summit even
more of a success.
So what is up for grabs? Certainly the right to define new
top-level domain names (anybody visited a .museum site lately?) and to
hand out to various favored organizations the plum of domain name
registration (which really should be a nearly pure technical
function, and has been turned into a heavy-weight, politicized
activity by the "intellectual property" interests). But that's not
really very much.
The fears that seem to be circulating around the domain name fight is
that governments or other organizations will use control over domain
names to censor the Internet. Ironically, the biggest threat to
freedom in the use of domain names has been from the private sector,
specifically the "intellectual property" interests. But the danger is
present that governments will catch on (China seems to be doing so)
and manipulating the system to restrict free speech. Still, with
search engines becoming more popular and more powerful all the time,
domain names are not the prime prizes they seemed in the late 1990s.
IP addresses are also a potential source of control that Internet
users should be conscious about, if not worried about. Addressing can
be abused mainly in a context of scarcity, and there has been debate
for years over whether IP addresses are getting scarce. (They're
certainly scarce when you ask the average local ISP for more than
one!) A vigorous campaign to adopt IPv6 would remove most of the
worry over this potential choke-hold.
And who ultimately is in charge of the Domain Name System? You
are. You determine what domains you view. Somewhere on your personal
computer is a configuration option that determines where you go to
resolve top-level domains, and you can go far beyond what ICANN would
like you to see. Visit the
Open Root Server Confederation.
Well, I don't really mean to say that the Domain Name System is
totally open and that nobody has control over it. ICANN is still
enthroned. The ORSC is mostly a form of protest, not a model for the
future. (It doesn't solve the problem of name collisions, for
My point is that the Internet is a subtle ecology that has always
rested on the cooperation of multiple parties. This cooperation spans
a spectrum from the individual home user on his PC to the peering
agreements between major backbone owners. As these peering
arrangements and the history of ICANN show, systems have evolved
historically in a rough, unsystematized way, and some participants do
not like the terms of cooperation.
For instance, underdeveloped countries complain about the
interconnection fees they have to pay to more powerful backbone
operators in developed countries. Expanding interconnection points is
a way to bring down costs without trying to change the politics of
peering, but a review of the politics would also be pertinent.
While ICANN has bumbled many tasks and exceeded its authority on
others, its leaders have a sense of the fragility of the Internet
ecology. The ITU, in contrast, is tromping all over the grounds just
in the process of mapping it. I find it amusing that, in their search
for a boogie man, they have ceded to ICANN far more authority than
anyone else has.
(The U.S. government reviews its contract with ICANN every year or
two. It's generally unhappy with what it sees and gives ICANN a
tongue-lashing each time. But so far no one in the government has had
the guts to propose something new. Given the problems of dealing with
Internet ecology, I can understand their reticence.)
There are so many people who have spent years fighting within and
outside ICANN to change the policies on domain names, that the view of
Internet policy as ICANN vs. ITU is truly insulting.
Anyway, it's time for some responsible journalists to untangle the
mess caused by the current spin.
What's up for grabs at WSIS?
Rescuing a piece of DNS
The resolution of meaningful, mnemonic, guessable, attractive names to IP addresses will always attract conflict. While engaging in that conflict, we should also rescue as much functionality as we can and return it to purely technical governance.
Justification of ORSC
Since putting up my blog I have heard from two proponents of the Open
Root Server Confederation, Einar Stefferud and Simon Higgs. Here I
will print Einar's comment, which shows the extensive thought and
caring he has long invested in Internet activities, followed by a