March 26, 2017

Net Governance Debate Heats Up

European countries surprised the U.S. Wednesday by suggesting that an international body rather than the U.S. government should have ultimate control over certain Internet functions. According to Tom Wright’s story in the International Herald Tribune,

The United States lost its only ally [at the U.N.’s World Summit on the Information Society] late Wednesday when the EU made a surprise proposal to create an intergovernmental body that would set principles for running the Internet. Currently the U.S. Commerce Department approves changes to the Internet’s “root zone files”, which are administered by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or Icann, a nonprofit organization based in Marina del Rey, California.

As often happens, this discussion seems to confuse control over Internet naming with control over the Internet as a whole. Note the juxtaposition: the EU wants a new body to “set principles for running the Internet”; currently the U.S. controls naming via Icann.

This battle would be simpler and less intense if it were only about naming. What is really at issue is who will have the perceived legitimacy to regulate the Internet. The U.S. fears a U.N.-based regulator, as do I. Much of the international community fears and resents U.S. hegemony over the Net. (General anti-Americanism plays a role too, as in the Inquirer’s op-ed.)

The U.S. would have cleaner hands in this debate if it swore off broad regulation of the Net. It’s hard for the U.S. to argue against creating a new Internet regulator when the U.S. itself looks eager to regulate the Net. Suspicion is strong that the U.S. will regulate the Net to the advantage of its entertainment and e-commerce industries. Here’s the Register’s story:

The UN’s special adviser for internet governance, Nitin Desai, told us that the issue of control was particularly stark for developing nations, where the internet is not so much an entertainment or e-commerce medium but a vital part of the country’s infrastructure.

[Brazilian] Ambassador Porto clarified that point further: “Nowadays our voting system in Brazil is based on ICTs [information and communication technologies], our tax collection system is based on ICTs, our public health system is based on ICTs. For us, the internet is much more than entertainment, it is vital for our constituencies, for our parliament in Brazil, for our society in Brazil.” With such a vital resource, he asked, “how can one country control the Internet?”

The U.S. says flatly that it will not agree to an international governance scheme at this time.

If the U.S. doesn’t budge, and the international group tries to go ahead on its own, we might possibly see a split, where a new entity I’ll call “UNCANN” coexists with ICANN, with each of the two claiming authority over Internet naming. This won’t break the Internet, since each user will choose to pay attention to either UNCANN or ICANN. To the extent that UNCANN and ICANN assign names differently, there will be some confusion when UNCANN users talk to ICANN users. I wouldn’t expect many differences, though, so probably the creation of UNCANN wouldn’t make much difference, except in two respects. First, the choice to point one’s naming software at UNCANN or ICANN would probably take on symbolic importance, even if it made little practical difference. Second, UNCANN’s aura of legitimacy as a naming authority would make it easier for UNCANN to issue regulatory decrees that were taken seriously by the states that would ultimately have to implement them.

This last issue, of regulatory legitimacy, is the really important one. All the talk about naming is a smokescreen.

My guess is that the Geneva meeting will break up with much grumbling but no resolution of this issue. The EU and the rest of the international group won’t move ahead with its own naming authority, and the U.S. will tread more carefully in the future. That’s the best outcome we can hope for in the short term.

In the longer term, this issue will have to be resolved somehow. Until it is, many people around the world will keep asking the question, “Who runs the Internet?”, and not liking the answer.


  1. It is important to specify where differences between a root zone run by UNCANN (a very good name, one that should stick) and the root zone run by ICANN would cause users problems.

    The most obvious area is for TLDs that exist in one root zone but not the other. For example, UNCANN might add “.food” and allow food-related sites to have names under that TLD. When a user of ICANN’s root tries to go to “” (or, hopefully, “www.café.food”), they would be told that there is no such domain name; when a UNCANN users tries to go there, they would get to the desired web site.

    An equally important but less obvious area is TLDs whose name are the same in the two root zones but the name servers for those names differ. This is much more likely to confuse typical Internet users. For example, if the United States is at war with a country, it could order ICANN to change the name servers for that country to ones that the United States controls. A user would then be likely to see very different content depending on whether they use the ICANN root or the UNCANN root. A less ominous, but still very difficult, situation is when a government is in transition during or after a civil war. The timing of when the name server records are changed in the root zones could have a huge impact on the ability of the old or the new government to show its control to the outside world.

    The two issues can combine: if UNCANN adds “.food” to its root zone and allows Company A to assign names in that TLD, and ICANN adds “.food” to its root zone and allows Company B to assign names in that TLD, the resulting problems for users would be obvious.

  2. The main problem I have with the US relinquishing control to some international body is, I don’t know any of the latter that aren’t corrupt as hell.

    Cynics, of course, will say the US is corrupt too, but with corruption degree matters and the difference between corruption in the US and with some other governing bodies (including the UN) is night and day.

  3. Except for the root servers, the answer seems to be that no one runs the Internet.

    There is no Central Internet Authority (CIA). I don’t think you could build one now, even if the governments of the world agree on all the issues (which they don’t).

  4. I have a question about your remark in this post:

    “The U.S. fears a U.N.-based regulator, as do I.”

    What are your fears?

    PS: I enjoy your blog a lot, it is quite informative and well thought, that is why I am asking, to learn more on this issue.

  5. My question is, would this be leading to a new way of defining TLD’s on a large scale than the US’s ICANN, or a way for the UN to govern the basics of the Internet and the way it’s run? This sounds more to me like the UN is trying to set it up so that they have complete control over everything happening on the IntraWeb.(Censorship anyone?). I’ve viewed a few articles on the subject and can not very well find a defined stance given by the UN or UN officials.

  6. Brian Srivastava says:

    The question arises, if an international body (the UNCANN in this case, though this sort of thing sounds more like something handled by a separate agency affiliated with the UN) forms itself up to control naming, who are other governments in the world going to sign up with, if either? If the europeans can get south korea and japan on board (or even just one of those), to sign up to an international organization, the US would be hard pressed not to follow along. As Mr Feltan says, that may not have a huge problem (and may in fact be a good thing IMO, this would prevent anyone from having hegemony) if you have one set of DNS servers, with one set of address numbers, and another set of DNS servers with another set of numbers. The issue of course is overlap, but I don’t think it would be all that difficult if I go to for my browser to ask which DNS server I wish to use (and add a protocol to HTML so that you can flag your two versions the same if you own both).

  7. I’m reminded of RFC 2826 – Internet Architecture Board Technical Comment on the Unique DNS Root [1]. They highlight the importance of a globally unique public name space. I highly doubt that fighting over the namespace will ever get bad enough that we see a split. Root server operators, IETF members, users and more would object strongly, and I don’t seriously think many governments would be stupid enough to hurt their citizens like that.

    I don’t have a problem with ICANN being made truly international, or being replaced by an international organisation, provided it has broad representation and doesn’t do stupid things, like approving every money-hungry TLD proposal in sight.

    I do have a problem with governments trying to control more than is reasonable. Life seemed so much simpler in the days when IANA controlled the namespace. Aside from domain names, there’s allocation of IP address space; fortunately I haven’t heard anything about governments trying to take over ARIN, RIPE, APNIC, etc.

    But yes, the real issue is not naming and allocation, but regulation. I for one am perfectly happy with the notion that “no one owns or runs the Internet as a whole: it’s just a network of networks that exists”. But I guess that vague concept worries some people…


  8. Lewis Baumstark says:

    Seems to me the political issue is largely moot. If the namespace splits into two or more root servers, technology will simply work around it. Name lookup software will be updated to work with multiple root servers. In the case of a conflict where the same name points to several different numeric addresses, some mechanism will develop to allow the user to choose which one she wants. I think address owners will discover very quickly the folly of duplicating someone else’s site.

    The issue, as always, will be social (not political and, ultimately, not technological). It will take people some time to get used to a modified naming scheme (for example, might now be or somesuch). Bad stuff will happen (like people being fooled into thinking that scam site listed on the Nigerian root server is the same as Jeff Bezos’ Amazon), but I think things will settle out nicely before too long.

  9. Well, we already had a DNS schism a few years back, don’t you remember? I think it was triggered when NetSol was trying to milk its registration monopoly (before the registrar function got divvied up). Fairly few people used the alternative roots, but they were there.