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.