The Financial Times
June 24, 2002
The web's internal woes
The body responsible for domain names is in disarray
By Kenneth Neil Cukier
The world once was simple. Global resources were managed by international treaty: think sea lanes, or geostationary satellite space.
Then came the internet, built by the private sector outside government regulation. Although decentralised by design, the internet, like all communication networks, needs some central co-ordination to work, for things such as domain names ending in .com or .co.uk and routing numbers. They represent an international resource, too. So who sets the rules?
Until recently, the debate seemed settled: a private-sector-based organisation called Icann, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. It was established in 1998 by the US government, which funded initial internet research, with the backing of governments around the world.
But festering problems at Icann have exploded into the open, to the point where even the group's allies question whether it can survive.
In its first three years, Icann has failed to win the support of organisations that manage country code domain names, such as .fr for France. Instead, it has had to face accusations that it is over-regulatory and opaque. Its internal processes for creating domains, such as .biz, and electing board members have been attacked.
The user-friendly domain name system translates names such as ft.com into machine-readable routing numbers to send data. Co-ordinating names and numbers to ensure there are no duplications is critical for the smooth functioning of the internet. Without Icann, it could become unstable because unsanctioned domain names - say, .sex or .web - are not compatible on different service providers.
Before Icann, the co-ordination task was performed by a single computer science professor in California, on the payroll of the US Department of Defence. That legacy bolts US political control on to Icann; and at US Senate hearings this month, one conservative politician threatened that the country would take over Icann unless the global body reformed itself.
Yet it is the attempt to restructure Icann that may create the most problems. Icann's board will meet in Bucharest, Romania, this week to thrash out the details of a proposal by its staff to overhaul the group. The plan would eliminate publicly elected representatives to Icann and give the board seats to government officials.
That risks sparking a free-for-all where governments worldwide jockey for influence over running the internet.
It also marks an odd irony. Icann was created as an industry self- regulatory body precisely to keep governments out, fearing they might encumber the fast-moving technology with power politics or bureaucratic red tape. Now, the group itself is calling on the nation state to help it survive.
The traditional ethos of the internet was a creative anarchy that resisted governmental control. Many believe that government control could ossify the technical underpinnings of the network by imposing public policy objectives to the technological design, making the system more difficult to evolve with innovations.
This perspective was championed in a book* published this month on the founding of Icann, the first time its history has been comprehensively treated. Its author, Milton Mueller, a professor of telecommunications policy at Syracuse University in upstate New York and a long-time Icann critic, vaunts domain names as private property. He argues that the system should be left to the commercial sector to exploit rather than treated as a public resource and put under intergovernmental scrutiny.
Though the view is sure to be attacked, Prof Mueller's contribution is an important one, methodically tracing how the internet flourished because of governments' hands-off regulatory approach, which he believes must be preserved if the internet is to evolve.
While nations are a part of the Icann process today, through a governmental advisory committee, the body may only recommend policies and lacks formal power. Curiously, the only real scrutiny over Icann has come not from governments but from the publicly elected board members at large, the constituency that Icann staff recommends eliminating.
With Icann in disarray, it raises the issue whether the US will ever relinquish its authority over the global body. A first step towards finding an answer will be taken by the people at this week's meeting, who, for the time being, constitute the internet's shadow governors.
*Milton L. Mueller: Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace, MIT Press, June 2002
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