Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Who will control the internet?

As I reported on Sunday, some foreign governments want control of the Internet shifted from ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers)--the U.S.-led group that currently manages crucial Internet infrastructure such as domain names, root servers and IP (Internet Protocol) addresses--to an international institution such as United nations. In the current edition of Foreign Affairs, Kenneth Neil Cukier, who covers technology for The Economist, writes extensively on this issue and the US government's reaction:

Any network requires some centralized control in order to function. The global phone system, for example, is administered by the world's oldest international treaty organization, the International Telecommunication Union, founded in 1865 and now a part of the UN family. The Internet is different. It is coordinated by a private-sector nonprofit organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which was set up by the United States in 1998 to take over the activities performed for 30 years, amazingly, by a single ponytailed professor in California.

The controversy over who controls the Internet has simmered in insular technology-policy circles for years and more recently has crept into formal diplomatic talks. Many governments feel that, like the phone network, the Internet should be administered under a multilateral treaty. ICANN, in their view, is an instrument of American hegemony over cyberspace: its private-sector approach favors the United States, Washington retains oversight authority, and its Governmental Advisory Committee, composed of delegates from other nations, has no real powers.

This discontent finally boiled over at the UN's World Summit on the Information Society, the first phase of which was held in Geneva in December 2003 (the second phase is set for November in Tunis). Brazil and South Africa have criticized the current arrangement, and China has called for the creation of a new international treaty organization. France wants an intergovernmental approach, but one fundamentally based on democratic values.{See Footnote 1} Cuba and Syria have taken advantage of the controversy to poke a finger in Washington's eye, and even Zimbabwe's tyrant, Robert Mugabe, has weighed in, calling the existing system of Internet governance a form of neocolonialism

...As the overseer of the domain name system, the United States has taken a liberal approach in keeping with its liberal values. There is no guarantee that an intergovernmental system would continue on such a course, and so even committed internationalists ought to be wary of changing how the system is run.

This is especially so since the very countries that most restrict the Internet within their borders are the ones calling loudest for greater control. As other countries sharpen their diplomatic knives for the final round of the summit in Tunis in November, the dispute is echoing an earlier battle at Unesco in the 1980s over the so-called New World Information and Communication Order, which led the United States and the United Kingdom to pull out of the organization. Then, it was the Soviet Union, its satellites, and the developing world that called for controlling media activities and funding the development of media resources in developing countries; today, some of those same nations seek power over the Internet, as well as financial aid to overcome the digital divide...