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ICANN Feud: It's so 1995

Several nations are calling on the United States to give up its power over Internet addresses. But bigger problems loom.

The original grand goal of the United Nations’ World Summit on the Information Society, set for next week in Tunis, was to devise a strategy for lifting the developing world into the information age. But another issue has risen to the fore: the European Union has joined other countries in seeking multi-national control of the naming system on the Internet, a job now done by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the California-based organization that oversees the Internet’s domain name and addressing system.

All of this discussion over back-end architectures, however, misses the point of the U.N. summit, which should focus on basic questions of access, security, and censorship, according to several U.S. observers.

“I just think it’s an amazing collective hallucination that anyone thinks domain names are the point of entry for government regulation, and that debates over their management are worth creating another U.S./rest-of-the-world rift. This is just so 1995,” says Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and chair of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University.

“I defy anyone to tell me why domain name management is anything higher than 10 on the list of things we should care about with the governance of the Internet.”

Instead, Zittrain would like to see the summitteers do something constructive like pledging to abstain from censoring or filtering Internet content as service comes to new corners of the as-yet-unplugged world. “I would love if [the summit] actually focused on a declaration of principles for the provision of Internet service, emphasizing that neutral carriage of bits is the gold standard,” he says.

The row, which has been simmering for years, hit a new level in July 2005, after a U.N. working group recommended that a formal U.N. body comprised of political appointees from around the world replace ICANN. In response, the United States made clear that it is strongly opposed to a global body taking over.

ICANN oversees the domain name and numerical addressing system that keeps the medium humming and allows Web and email users around the world to get where they are going. The organization operates under contract from the U.S. Department of Commerce, hence, it is not directly authorized by the U.S. Congress. Nor is ICANN the subject of any treaty, which would provide a degree of power to treaty signatories from other nations.

Before the EU recently declared that it wanted a say in the name-and-address process, other countries demanding such a role included China, Iran, and Cuba–nations not known for their adherence to principles of free speech.

“We should not have to make a compromise between China’s idea of Internet freedom and our idea of Internet freedom,” says Paula Bruening, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based think tank. “That is why nobody in this country would agree to an international treaty.”

The lack of international control, though, has raised the hackles of governments around the world. Recognizing the rigidity of the battle lines, Hans Klein, a political scientist at Georgia Tech, proposes a compromise solution – one that essentially provides a regulatory structure that splits the difference.

“I recognize the validity of other countries’ concerns,” Klein says. “The power of ICANN is real, and the willingness to use that power has now been shown.”

Control of the domains for particular countries – such as Germany’s “.de” – rightfully belongs with those countries, he says. Klein says ICANN’s contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce could be internationalized. “That would be a weaker form of law than a treaty, where other countries might have a say,” he says, and might be palatable.

Meanwhile expansion of Internet involves overcoming huge hurdles that transcend the ICANN debate. Today one billion people use the Internet – but billions more are on the other side of the divide. Creating Internet access for everyone, and bringing benefits such as access to health information and the ability to conduct a business, requires basic investment in affordable infrastructure and cheap computers. And such an initiative requires a legal environment that allows foreign investment.

And the access problem doesn’t simply require the creation of an infrastructure; governments must to take steps to insure that once the Internet pipelines are built, they are actually usable.

That means, among other things, controlling spam. Junk e-mail is annoying enough for people in developed countries. But in places where information pipes are more like pipettes, as a practical matter, spam can choke off Internet access. “The internet governance question is important and I don’t want to minimize it,” says Bruening of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

“Still, the narrow question over who maintains back-end, technical control of the Internet’s addressing system represents only a tiny fraction of the ‘governance’ debate,” Bruening says. “And it remains the case that the solutions to many of the hot-button topics, like spam, spyware and cyber-crime, must be primarily addressed by individual governments at the national level.”

For its part, ICANN says that it’s already working hard to engage the international community and ensure technical stability and security for all, according to Theresa Swinehart, general manager of Global Partnerships for ICANN.

“It is becoming clear that the majority of governments recognize that the current internationally organized system of technical coordination has proven effective and is working well,” Swinehart says. “There is also a growing understanding of the need to avoid politicizing the Internet’s technical coordination. Continuing to keep politics out of the day-to-day operations of the Internet will not only continue to ensure user and business certainty, but will also maintain a stable and secure Internet for the world’s users as they come online.”

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