November 16, 2005

US retains hold of the internet: The US has won its fight to stay in charge of the internet, despite opposition from many nations. (BBC, 11/16/05)

In an eleventh-hour agreement ahead of a UN internet summit in Tunis, Tunisia, negotiators agreed to leave the US in charge of the net’s addressing system. […]

Disagreements over control of the internet had threatened to overshadow the summit, with countries such as China and Iran pushing for a international body under UN auspices to oversee the net.

The US had stood firm against this, arguing that it would stifle technological advance and increase censorship of the internet by undemocratic regimes.

The Tunis deal leaves the day-to-day management of the net in the hands of the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), which answers to the US government.

Icann will keep its current responsibilities for overseeing domain names and addressing systems, such as country domain suffixes, and managing how net browsers and e-mail programs direct traffic.

The 170 nations taking part in the negotiations agreed on the creation of an Intergovernmental Forum to discuss all internet issues, such as spam, viruses and cyber crime.

“We did not change anything on the role of the US government with regard to the technical aspects that we were very concerned about,” said the top US negotiator David Gross after the agreement.

Mr Gross said the forum would not have oversight authority nor would it do “anything that will create any problems for the private sector”.

Helped that the totalitarian regimes had no bargaining power–whgat are they going to do, restrict our access to their censored sites?



October 23, 2005

Web of the Free (MARK A. SHIFFRIN and AVI SILBERSCHATZ, 10/23/05, NY Times)

American values caused the Internet to emerge and evolve as a medium of freedom. While there is a standard of transcendent decency that can and should regulate Internet communication in such matters as child pornography, there are standards of national self-interest that vary from country to country. China sees the Internet as part of its internal infrastructure and seeks to govern it as such, monitoring and censoring communications that include words like “liberty,” “Tiananmen Square” or “Falun Gong,” and going after dissidents who use the Internet.

Internationalizing control of a medium now regulated with a loose hand by a nation committed to maximizing freedom would inevitably create more of an opening for countries like China – a strong proponent of imposing some international supervision of Icann – to exert more pressure on internet service providers. More broadly, international regulation could enable like-minded governments to work in concert to deem certain thoughts impermissible online. It is all too possible that minority political or religious expressions would be widely repressed under a doctrine of the greater good imposed by a collective of governments claiming to know what’s best, limiting what may be expressed online to whatever, say, the United Nations General Assembly, the European Union, or the Arab League, might deem reasonable.

Any society may, of course, choose to create its own balkanized domestic version of the Internet, an Intranet within its borders that it regulates as it pleases. It could then still do within its borders many of the things done by the Internet, like Brazil’s online tax collection system, but would not enjoy the online privilege of worldwide interaction.

The Internet is an attractive commercial infrastructure for all societies, even oppressive ones. But the string attached to its creation by America is that it must be used within a context of freedom, both economic and political. That is a democratic value that we should not be shy about exporting. Accepting that commitment to online freedom should be the price that foreign governments must pay for the blessing of the Internet in their national economic lives.

America must be the spider, not just one of the flies.


October 20, 2005

Who Will Control the Internet? (Kenneth Neil Cukier, November/December 2005, Foreign Affairs)

As historic documents go, the statement issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce on June 30 was low-key even by American standards of informality. No flowery language, no fountain-penned signatures, no Great Seal of the United States — only 331 words on a single page. But the simplicity of the presentation belied the importance of the content, which was Washington’s attempt to settle a crucial problem of twenty-first-century global governance: Who controls the Internet?

Any network requires some centralized control in order to function. The global phone system, for example, is administered by the world’s oldest international treaty organization, the International Telecommunication Union, founded in 1865 and now a part of the UN family. The Internet is different. It is coordinated by a private-sector nonprofit organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which was set up by the United States in 1998 to take over the activities performed for 30 years, amazingly, by a single ponytailed professor in California.

The controversy over who controls the Internet has simmered in insular technology-policy circles for years and more recently has crept into formal diplomatic talks. Many governments feel that, like the phone network, the Internet should be administered under a multilateral treaty. ICANN, in their view, is an instrument of American hegemony over cyberspace: its private-sector approach favors the United States, Washington retains oversight authority, and its Governmental Advisory Committee, composed of delegates from other nations, has no real powers.

This discontent finally boiled over at the UN’s World Summit on the Information Society, the first phase of which was held in Geneva in December 2003 (the second phase is set for November in Tunis). Brazil and South Africa have criticized the current arrangement, and China has called for the creation of a new international treaty organization. France wants an intergovernmental approach, but one involving only an elite group of democratic nations. Cuba and Syria have taken advantage of the controversy to poke a finger in Washington’s eye, and even Zimbabwe’s tyrant, Robert Mugabe, has weighed in, calling the existing system of Internet governance a form of neocolonialism.

How did such a welcomed technology become the source of such discord? Everyone understands that the Internet is crucial for the functioning of modern economies, societies, and even governments, and everyone has an interest in seeing that it is secure and reliable. But at the same time, many governments are bothered that such a vital resource exists outside their control and, even worse, that it is under the thumb of an already dominant United States. Washington’s answer to these concerns — the Commerce Department’s four terse paragraphs, released at the end of June, announcing that the United States plans to retain control of the Internet indefinitely — was intended as a sort of Monroe Doctrine for our times. It was received abroad with just the anger one would expect, setting the stage for further controversy. […]

By the mid-1990s, however, it became clear to the small coterie of officials in the United States and elsewhere who were aware of the matter that the Internet could no longer be administered by a single individual. But who or what would replace him?

After a bitter series of negotiations among the business community, governments, and nongovernmental organizations worldwide, the Clinton administration helped broker a compromise and established ICANN in 1998. Because the United States’ hands-off approach had allowed the Internet to flourish, it seemed appropriate that the new organization be based in the private sector. This would make it more responsive, more flexible, and less prone to bureaucratic and political squabbling. The negotiations were so tense that Postel suffered a heart attack as they were ending and never lived to see the birth of the successor organization he was instrumental in creating.

ICANN was an experiment, a bottom-up, multi-stakeholder approach toward managing a global resource on a nongovernmental basis. Indeed, in its early days it was often touted as a model for other issues that require the unified action of numerous groups from government, industry, and civil society, such as treating communicable diseases or handling climate change. ICANN’s private-sector status, moreover, has helped keep the Internet free from political interference. When in 2002 members of the Federal Communications Commission were asked by their counterparts at China’s Ministry of Information Industry why Taiwan had been allocated its own two-letter domain (“.tw”), the commissioners could pass the buck to ICANN and breathe a sigh of relief.

Yet from the start, ICANN was plagued by controversy. Critics charged that it lacked transparency, accountability, and legitimacy. Civil-society groups felt it was in the pocket of the domain name registration businesses it was designed to regulate. Businesses felt it was overly governmental. And foreign governments felt powerless before it. As many developing countries woke to the Internet’s importance, it struck them as outrageous that the Internet was essentially run by a nonprofit corporation whose 15-person board of directors was accountable to the attorney general of the state of California and under the authority of the U.S. government. Even the U.S. Congress criticized it, hauling the group into tense hearings regularly. Half a decade after it was founded with such optimism, the organization was mockingly referred to in tech-policy circles as “ICANN’T.”

All this came to a head in 2003, during the preparatory meetings for the World Summit on the Information Society. Washington had been able to deflect criticism of ICANN in bilateral discussions but proved unable to block the momentum for change at the multilateral level. Telecom-policy officials mildly supportive of ICANN were replaced by senior representatives from foreign ministries, officials less familiar with the details of Internet governance but more experienced in challenging U.S. power. Watching the United States go to war in Iraq despite global opposition, these diplomats saw ICANN as yet another example of American unilateralism. What would prevent Washington, they argued, from one day choosing, say, to knock Iran off the Internet by simply deleting its two-letter moniker, “.ir,” from the domain name system? Surely the Internet ought to be managed by the international community rather than a single nation.

Governments worldwide sought to dilute the United States’ control by calling for a new arrangement, and in November 2004 UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed a 40-person working group to address questions of Internet governance. Washington had planned to grant ICANN autonomy from its oversight in 2006. But the more other countries clamored for power, the more the United States reconsidered its policy of relinquishing control. Ultimately, it came down to national interest: Washington, with so much at stake in the Internet’s continuing to function as it had, decided it was not prepared to risk any changes. So, as the UN working group was preparing to release its report (which, unsurprisingly, favored transferring authority over the Internet to the UN), the U.S. government made a preemptive strike. In the brief Commerce Department statement, Washington announced its decision: the United States would retain its authority over ICANN, period.

The John Lewis Gaddis comparison of W to JQA looks better all the time–except for the winning a second term part…