This week the first ever meeting hosted by the United Nations International Telecommunication Union in Tunisia. “One of the goals of the summit is to advance the ‘internationalization’ of what is known as ‘Internet governance’.”1 It is expected at this meeting that there will be pressure on the U.S. delegation from other member countries (such as China, Iran, Libya, the E.U., and others to name a few) and their stance to maintain control over the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non profit based in the U.S. (California specifically). Boiled down, the UN wants to assume control over the root zone file, which has been described as the master address book for the Internet. It’s what makes sure no one can say www.andrewconnell.com points to anywhere other than my leased IP at my hosting provider. Currently the root zone file is controlled by ICANN. ICANN has been granted this responsibility of maintaining the root zone file by the U.S. Commerce Department.
So, why do I say “don’t mess with ICANN”? What is arguably the best thing about the Internet IMHO is the fact that it’s been primarily driven by market forces, not by governments. Sure, some governments assert control over certain aspects of the Internet (like China blocking specific democracy sites for example), but they aren’t controlling the Internet, they are controlling their citizens access to the Internet… a very different thing. But why do I really think the control shouldn’t be handed over to the U.N?
First, the U.N. has proven it’s poor leadership and management skills time and time again(i.e.: Oil for Food, Rwanda, the Balkans, Yugoslavia, etc). Second, the U.N. has shown it has a very poor evaluation process of countries chairing certain committees or groups (i.e.: Iraq overseeing WMD proliferation, Lybia overseeing human rights, etc). Third, what’s to say that all the sudden a member state wants to start imposing certain content restrictions on the Internet such as one country pushing to block all mentions of the Bible, Koran, or other religious items because it is against their interest (see: communist states). But my biggest reason: why should government get involved? Why can’t we leave it up to the markets and let countries block access the way some do it today? Hasn’t this worked so far? Hasn’t the Internet grown in it’s reach, especially developing countries in recent years, on its own just fine?
By now you can see I don’t like the idea of the U.N. controlling the root zone file or the management of the Internet. So… do we leave it as is? No. The U.S. shouldn’t have nearly as much influence or control over ICANN as hey have in the past. I do think that some sort of international body should control the root zone file for the Internet… something that is surely not just an American resource but a global resource and communication vehicle. Aside from the fact that the U.S. Commerce Department retains the control of the root zone file, but in reality ICANN really controls it (as the U.S. Commerce Department has granted that responsibility onto ICANN), don’t we have that now with ICANN? ICANN is made up of 21 board members; less than 25% are American and the chairman is an Australian.2
The U.S. hasn’t done itself any favors working to ban offshore (from the U.S.) gambling sites and pushing ICANN to drop the idea of adding a .xxx address. These actions only show the rest of the world that the U.S. is not treating ICANN as an impartial (non-U.S.) body. Both of these actions are and were wrong… you should be able to lobby ICANN on your interests, but not strong arm them into your interests.
I say let’s leave it up to the open markets to decide. Maybe expand ICANN, maybe move it out of the U.S. in a symbolic gesture. Maybe allow countries to act as some of the “voters” when issues are brought up. But primarily, let’s get leaders from the most global technology/Internet companies on the board such as Microsoft, Google, Sony, Sun, IBM, SAP, Oracle… countries from all over the world (and maybe that’s what we have now, considering only 5 of 21 board members are American… but obviously there are). Everyone would have equal footing… but most importantly, you won’t have one country imposing its views upon other countries.
The Saturday edition of the Wall Street Journal today (Saturday, November 11, 2005) has an article by Christopher Rhoads “At Global Internet Summit, U.S. Expects Criticism” (page A4) and an op-ed “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” by Brian M. Carney both addressing this issue. Carney’s op-ed talks about how maybe doing nothing would be the best course. He speculates that what would happen is some countries would likely stand up their own root zone files, similar to how the telecommunication network operates (there’s nothing stopping one country from saying my telephone number goes to someone else and not me), and that this would be the lesser of two evils (the other being the U.N. assuming control). I disagree… but what I’m suggesting would probably never happen (more diverse private control over the Internet root zone file, not more public control by countries) because you’d have to tell the U.N. to buzz off.
I’ll be interested to see what comes of the summit this week in Tusnia. I hope nothing but a lot of lip service.
1 “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” by Brian Carney; Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2005, page A62 Some of my facts in this article were based off the two articles in the November 11, 2005 edition of the Wall Street Journal (specifically the makeup of the ICANN board)