The Financial Times, comment page
Why the internet must regulate itself
Imagine that every time you accidentally dialled a non-working phone number, you were bombarded with a telemarketing jingle. That is what unexpectedly began happening on the internet a few weeks ago with mistyped web addresses. But the rogue manoeuvre - by a company entrusted by the net's regulatory body to operate its addressing system - was more than an annoyance. It disrupted the stability of the internet and, in so doing, brought into sharp focus a gathering dispute between governments and the private sector over who enforces rules on the net.
The net's overseer is called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), which today concludes a week-long open board meeting in Tunisia. Based in the private sector, Icann oversees the technology that ensures that web addresses actually work. For now, the move to siphon off errant web traffic has been put on hold. But unless the deeper crisis over who controls the net is resolved through the self-regulatory mechanisms of the internet industry, the incident will provide an open door for governments to step in. That would be to no one's benefit.
To understand what is at stake, it helps to look at a bit of history. For almost 30 years, the internet was essentially "run" by one man, Jon Postel, a computer science professor in California who was funded by the US Department of Defence. He did not try to impose content restrictions or snoop on teenagers downloading music. Rather, he made sure that the net's names and numbers functioned smoothly. He nurtured a form of self-governance, whereby the internet industry collectively agreed to use interoperable standards to everyone's benefit. Indeed, the innards of the net's infrastructure is based on consensus, not inter-governmental treaties. And that model of private-sector consensus is largely responsible for the net's quick pace of innovation.
The reins of the internet passed in 1998 from Postel to Icann, which he helped establish, just days before he died. An international, non-profit organisation, Icann is a rare hybrid - a private body with minimal government involvement that manages a global resource, cyberspace. But without Postel's moral leadership, many stakeholders refused to respect Icann, which seemed bureaucratic and non- transparent.
Things changed last month when VeriSign, the company that operates the .com and .net systems under agreement with Icann, began redirecting mistyped web addresses to the company's advertising-supported search engine. Because it was not co-ordinated by Icann, the change ended up mangling the smooth flow of digital traffic worldwide. Internet service providers experienced glitches; corporate spam filters became confused. More alarmingly, the consensus-based model of internet governance was betrayed - one company had manipulated the system for its own advantage.
Early this month, Icann stood up to VeriSign and challenged it on contractual grounds. The company quickly backed down. This is cause for celebration: it represents the internet community policing itself, the first serious trial of Icann's effectiveness. While Icann must ensure that, in fostering stability, it does not restrict innovation, the alternative to industry self-regulation is worse: countries around the world might see a power vacuum and be tempted to govern the net alone.
That is already being considered, and is poised to spoil the World Summit on the Information Society, a United Nations-run conference in December in Geneva. It will mark a sad day for the internet and the spirit of Postel. Intergovernmental processes often politicise issues, to the detriment of users' freedom as well as technical progress. Although nations must play a role, they should tread gently when it comes to web addresses, which are integral to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in a networked world.
It is precisely the liberties enshrined in the internet through its shared governance by the private sector and nations worldwide that enable us to enjoy the net's vigorous growth. But this can be maintained only if the internet community is willing to persevere with the tough task of regulating itself. If Icann fails, we run the risk of government over-regulating the net or business over-commercialising it. And in either extreme, users lose.
The writer is a research fellow at the National Centre for Digital Government at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government