Flood Control

Monday, October 17, 2005

As Exciting As A UN Meeting: The Future Of The Net

So, the UN is fighting over who owns the Internet, or more accurately, ICANN. This worries me somewhat.

ICANN, for those who aren't aware, is the organisation responsible for deciding who gets what IP address and running the DNS system that decides what a web address actually means. They're essentially the central bureaucracy of the Internet, although they farm out nearly everything to other organisations. Still, whoever controls ICANN can determine who can connect to the Internet and who gets to have a web address.

Currently, that's the US Department of Commerce, who have been smart enough to restrict their involvement to the rare suggestion. For an organisation that has world-wide operations and influence, that's an impressive amount of self-control.

But then, it's still the US government in charge, so naturally Europe has to object. And so they have: currently, there's a spat going on within the UN over who should own ICANN. There's basically four players: The US, who reckon things are going just fine, thank you; Europe, who wants to bring ICANN sort of under the fold of the UN; a group we'll call the Argentina consortium (because consortium is a cool word), which wants to separate ICANN from the US government by slowly having the US relinquish control; and a group we'll call CONTROL, which wants a bureaucracy set up that they've called the Council for Global Public Policy and Oversight, which would both oversee ICANN and handle IP addresses itself. And that's not even going into International Telecommunications Union, faced with a future in which they're obsolete, who'd dearly love to be ICANN themselves.

Firstly, CONTROL. If you thought the Council for Global Public Policy and Oversight sounds like it might dictate what the Internet is allowed to say, you're probably on the right track: CONTROL is made up of Iran and Pakistan, with the support of such champions of free speech as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. The Council would be bureaucrats, mostly; everyone else, like corporations and internet management societies, get an 'advisory role' as opposed to any real say. Pakistan also wants a UN forum set up that would talk all things Internet, but hasn't really said exactly what the forum's powers would be if any, which is a bit suspicious.

This proposal would simply give a bureaucracy too much control over ICANN; part of the Internet's success has been that the Commerce Department has stayed the hell out of the Internet and ICANN has thoroughly decentralised anything it doesn't really have to do itself. You'd lose that nimbleness by setting up one official group that has the final say on what goes on on the Internet, and you'd have to fight through the bureaucracy to change anything. These are computers, they change pretty fast. But who would be in charge of this all-powerful group? Could it be the countries that suggested it? It's a transparent power play for control of the Internet, that purveyor of free speech which has embarrassed many of CONTROL's countries.

What I'm surprised about is why Brazil is getting involved with CONTROL. I thought they were supposed to be cool? It doesn't add up with the image of Brazil as a permissive country, so the only thing I can think of is that either there's a dark side to the home of the Amazon or it's politics with Argentina.

Next, the EU's proposal. They want a "co-operation model" to replace the Commerce Department, which would call the shots on how the Internet is set up (IP addresses and the like) and would organise a new dispute resolution system (currently, anyone who thinks they've been robbed of their rightful address has to go see the Californian court, which is a fine solution but for the fact that it's, you know, in California, which doesn't really help anyone on the other side of the world who has a cyber-squatter problem). The EU would also set up a forum to talk about Internet issues that aren't technological, which would probably be part of the UN. The forum's basically just talk - they can't do anything, so while the UN could decide that, for instance, BitTorrent was a real problem, they couldn't outlaw anyone using it.

This is better than CONTROL's idea, at least. There's definitely some bone throwing to CONTROL in the forum part so China can rant about all the filthy people out there who don't agree with China. But what, exactly, is the "co-operation model" supposed to be? Don't we already have a group that does this stuff? Big slap in the face to them, huh? Is it really a good idea to replace stuff that already exists with some nebulous new group whose only saving grace is that it's owned by the UN?

Next up, the Argentina consortium. This appears to be an 'all of the above' sort of group, with vast swathes of Africa, Japan, Canadia (hey, they're Canadians), New Zealand, Mexico, Ecuador, etc. Probably more politics than anything else. Their proposal is to take ICANN off the Commerce Department by weaning it off slowly - first, you make a new group that serves the same purpose, and gradually transfer control over to this new group. They also want a reform of ICANN so governments are more involved in its decision-making. This one's the 'softly, softly' approach - most of the countries supporting this one signed on because they're concerned about the Internet disappearing overnight while the bureaucrats get their act together. This one's certainly the most flexible, and although it still involves the US as a major player, its strength is that it doesn't try to replace things that already exist until there's lots of safety net.

Like the thing we really need is more red tape. The problem here is still that it's bureaucracy interfering in the running of the Internet, even though it's not actually controlling anything. One of the great regrets is that there's a way for the politicians to interfere with the Internet at all, and governments have certainly exerted their control as much as they can. (Why I object to this: Ever noticed that usually when there's a sign-up page that you have to declare you're over 13? That's because of a US law that prohibits the 12-and-under from using the Internet, and because, well, the Internet's a global system, those who aren't US citizens are subjected to this silly law. What's an appropriate law for the US isn't appropriate for, say, Sweden, so to have Swedish citizens conform to US laws seems a bit unfair.) This suggestion still puts ICANN at the mercy of governments plural. Currently it's just the US, who feels a good deal of public pressure not to directly interfere in the infrastructure. Will a consortium of countries feel the same way? Considering China's efforts to block off the Internet, I doubt it.

Finally, there's the US, who thinks everything is just dandy. Their comments have been interesting: while they see themselves as the best suited to run the Internet because they've always done it (and we all know that tradition is never wrong) they've also said they'd prefer to see multiple forums to discuss the future of the Internet, instead of just one.

Having the US with veto power over the Internet doesn't seem like a healthy proposition, considering what's at stake: other countries, particularly CONTROL, have threatened to disconnect their countries from the Internet, which would kill in one fell swoop everything that's good about it - disconnected countries would be sure to implement more restrictive protocols, killing free speech in those nations; the rest of the Internet would lose its ubiquity, and would almost certainly dissolve into multiple subnets that can't talk to each other because they're all using different technology. Sure, hackers would probably try to connect up the disparate networks, and not being connected to the Internet would be a clear sign that the country in question is fairly authoritarian and probably shouldn't be a world citizen, but the confusion and multiple standards would cause major infrastructure problems for years to come. Even worse, China has a history of developing technological standards, so it's likely China would develop its own set of Internet standards if pressed. Besides, Clinton had promised that ICANN wouldn't be overseen by the US by September 2006, so not keeping this promise would not bode well for the current administration's credibility, such as it is. Giving up ICANN would be a good opportunity for the US to earn some trust in the eyes of the international community, which they could do with since the US-led invasion of Iraq.

The question is, do we trust the UN to run the Internet, considering that the Internet has done more to promote peace, tolerance and human rights by giving people a chance to communicate than the UN has done? Will the political power plays stymie any chance the net has to stick around for any length of time? Well, they're discussing it now, so we'll know in just a few days.

Cross fingers.


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