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Critics charge that it is the De Beers of the Internet: an organization that, like the diamond cartel, has created an artificial scarcity to protect a few established players. Worse, they say, whatever claims this body once had to legitimacy were wiped away last year when its board voted to abolish elections.

This faceless power center is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. And its actions may jeopardize the future of the Internet.

The Internet could evolve into a global commons where people all over the world are free to communicate and interact and to distribute and consume an endless variety of literature and media. Or it could become a tool for enforcing corporate control and governmental censorship. Which direction the Internet takes depends in large part on which policies and technologies ICANN supports.

Many people think the Internet can never be subject to centralized control. Wasn’t this global distributed network built to withstand a thermonuclear attack? Doesn’t it treat censorship as damage and route around it? So goes popular Net mythology. But in reality, the Internet is a human institution. And like a corporation, nation, or family, it can be led astray.

Global communication requires global standards, and it is here that the ICANN has its grip on the system’s choke point. This company sets rules that govern the worldwide assignment of all-important domain names. Its rules are incorporated into contracts and passed on to anybody who gets a dot-com, dot-net, dot-org, or dot-info domain. The best-known of these rules is the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy. If you have a top-level domain name, you’ve agreed to this policy. ICANN’s glacial pace for establishing new top-level domains has been a great help to domain registrars such as VeriSign: they profit from the lack of competition. Because there is a limited number of registrars and a limited number of top-level domains, the worldwide domain-name business is directed to the incumbents. The dispute resolution policy creates procedures that can be used to seize a domain name from one organization and hand it to another. This policy has been widely hailed as a boon for trademark holders worldwide.

ICANN’s second mode of control is in its ultimate allotment of Internet Protocol addresses-the Internet’s equivalent of phone numbers. Theoretically, control of domain names and Internet addresses could be exploited for purposes that range from stifling competition among Internet service providers to shutting down an entire country’s access to the Net. Imagine if instead of having to take Napster to court, the recording industry had been able to bypass the courts and shut down Napster simply by nullifying its domain name and addresses.

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