The Wall Street Journal, op-ed page

October 22, 1998

 

Soldiering On in the Cyber-Revolution

By Kenneth Neil Cukier

 

PARIS -- Every time an Internet-user surfs the Web, sends an e-mail or buys a book on-line, he can do so thanks to Jon Postel, one of the Internet's founding fathers, who died last week. From his academic perch, Postel headed the Net's central coordinating body, the all-powerful Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) in Marina del Rey, California. Though no one can "control" the Internet, Postel came pretty close. He oversaw the Internet's vital infrastructure and set the policies that let user-friendly Web addresses such as www.wsj.com be translated into Internet Protocol numbers used for routing the digital traffic.

 

In just a few short years since its inception, the Internet has revolutionized communications -- from electronic commerce to phone calls -- and is now an integral part of society. But unlike many other revolutionary leaders, Postel didn't live to see the establishment of the policy-making institutions that he worked to build. Although immortalized in the underlying technology, his vision of Internet policy making -- one that is outside the control of governments -- is still a matter of vitriolic debate in Washington, Paris, Geneva and elsewhere. As a vestige of the academic and military sectors that gave birth to the Internet, IANA remains under the authority and funding of the U.S. government.

 

In January, the government announced it would bow out and leave to industry the hard task of managing the Internet. That means getting service providers, equipment manufactures and software developers to agree on common standards. Unless the Internet industry recognizes a single authority to make the tough decisions over the names and numbers, the Internet won't work universally. It would be like a telecom carrier minting a new telephone country code -- no other callers would be able to reach it.

 

With so much at stake, the policy makers couldn't resist. United Nations affiliate agencies such as the International Telecommunications Union and the World Intellectual Property Organization tried to extend their powers onto the Internet. Recognizing the strategic importance of IANA as society moves into the information era, the European Commission and countries such as France and Australia all jockeyed for positions of influence. In the last years of his life, Postel dedicated himself to creating a new, private sector, bottom-up and internationally representative institution that would formalize the decision-making powers he wielded. His proposal for a successor organization to IANA was submitted to the U.S. Department of Commerce on Oct. 6, two weeks before he died. It lays out the framework for a self-funding, legally incorporated, non-profit entity in California with an internationally diverse board of directors. It would represent the interests of all Internet stakeholders from the private sector, as well as the techies who continue to build the Internet.

 

Perhaps he's lucky then that he's not here to see how the lawmakers and new Internet pipsqueaks are set to make a mess of things. The U.S. Congress is investigating whether Postel's proposal was made behind closed doors with the strong hand of the Clinton administration. France wants to get the International Telecommunications Union to anoint the new organization and perhaps play a role in its operations. And a handful of small-town Net entrepreneurs sniping from their e-mail soapboxes have been calling on the U.S. government to exert control over the new IANA.

 

Together, these factors may turn Postel's death into the overture of a power struggle over the fate of Internet governance. It is something the 55-year-old soft-spoken professor, with his silver beard, pony-tail and sandals that personified the Net's informality, would have been saddened to see. His was the vision of a communications network beyond the control of government. He understood that if the Internet waited for bureaucrats to make decisions, there would be no Internet. Indeed, the Internet was created by privately-owned data networks that voluntarily agreed to interconnect on the basis of collective benefit; the engineers recognized the need for a central authority to make uncomfortable decisions that everyone must follow, since it would be in everyone's larger interest to do so. And that's when they turned to Jon, who had a reputation for being trustworthy and fair. So when Postel referred to his vision of "Internet self-governance," he meant allowing the Internet community to develop its own institutions to coordinate its actions.

 

If governments get to plunge their flagpoles into cyberspace, his vision risks being destroyed. The Internet moves too fast for governments to control. And since it is a weave of private international networks, it's not clear what governmental institution has legitimacy to determine Internet policies like adding new domain names -- such as the ".com" or ".org" suffixes of many of today's Internet addresses. Why not a ".med" for accredited medical institutions, for example? Such questions are much better left to industry itself to decide. Or so reasons -- believe it or not -- Ira Magaziner, the failed U.S. health- care commissar reborn as cyberpunk. Mr. Magaziner spearheaded an international campaign to forge consensus among the EC and governments around the world to defer to the authority of a new, private-sector-based IANA. And when key parties in the process of building the new institution failed to come to terms, he persuaded them to continue the dialogue, knowing the consequences would otherwise be an open door for the U.S. Congress or Geneva bureaucrats to storm through.

 

All this reached a crescendo when Postel was hospitalized last week for heart problems. So close to realization, his vision may become the first casualty of the revolution he was the catalyst in unleashing: A form of Internet self-governance founded on the authority of the Internet itself -- the companies that invest in it and the individuals who benefit from it.  To uphold the principles of this historic man who gave us the Internet we use today, and to ensure its unencumbered development, industry must support the framework Postel proposed before he died. And the best way to do that? Get the new institution up and running, and make sure governments stay out.

____________

Mr. Cukier is a senior editor and Paris correspondent for Communications Week International.