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ICANN on center stage
Scott Granneman, 2005-10-13

ICANN and the U.S. government reach center stage next month in Tunisia, as the future of IP address assignments and U.S. control of the root DNS turns into a hotbed of debate.

Hawaii is an island paradise, and the smallest of those islands - one that most people have never heard of - is Niihau. Located about seventeen miles west of Kauai, Niihau is home to about 200 people. Although it's part of the United States, the governance of Niihau is rather unusual. For about 150 years, the island has been privately owned by the Robinson family, who bought it in 1863 from King Kamehameha IV for about $10,000. The Robinsons are strict Scottish Calvinists, and citizens of Niihau must obey a litany of social rules if they wish to abide there. No smoking. No drinking. No adultery.

But it goes further than that. The Robinsons don't allow outsiders to visit the island unless the family members give permission first, giving rise to Niihau's more famous name: The Forbidden Island. For most of my readers, I'm willing to bet that Niihau sounds more like Paradise Spoiled. An almost pathological isolation is just too much.

Back on the mainland, life continues. People work and play, businesses make money, and governments do whatever it is they do. In United Nations business - not exactly something to which a lot of people pay attention - we see that the second meeting of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) is scheduled to take place on 16-18 November in Tunisia. At that conference, events may unfold that will permanently change the Internet as we know it - and not into shapes that many would find beneficial.

To understand what may happen, we need to recall a bit of recent history. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was set up by the US Department of Commerce (DoC) in 1998 to oversee the IP addresses and DNS that makes the Net usable. The understanding in place was that the DoC would allow ICANN to operate independently of the government agency beginning in September 2006. In June of this year, however, the Bush administration reneged on that promise. Michael D. Gallagher, assistant secretary at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), explained the government's position:

"The United States Government intends to preserve the security and stability of the Internet's Domain Name and Addressing System (DNS). Given the Internet's importance to the world's economy, it is essential that the underlying DNS of the Internet remain stable and secure. As such, the United States is committed to taking no action that would have the potential to adversely impact the effective and efficient operation of the DNS and will therefore maintain its historic role in authorising changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file."

Things didn't quite work out the way that the Bush administration hoped. Much of the rest of the world began to complain - vociferously - that they wanted more control of the IP and DNS process. Leading the charge were China, Iran, Brazil, Ghana, Cuba, and others. The United States' only backer? The European Union. Good old Europe. The US could always count on its most staunch allies, thank goodness.

That changed on 28 September, when David Hendon, the European Union's representative, announced that the EU was now agreeing that unilateral control of the Net by the US would have to change: "It is unreasonable to leave in the hands of the U.S. the power to decide what happens with the Internet in other countries." America is now essentially isolated on this issue, the only body left supporting what Paul Vixie (the primary author and architect of BIND, and founder of Internet Systems Consortium, which hosts one of the 13 root nameservers) calls "the US-DoC/ICANN/VeriSign trinity". It seems that the Bush administration's stubborn refusal to even consider changes to the way ICANN works - coupled with the unilateralist attitude and actions of the past five years - has now backfired completely.

It's somewhat understandable that many countries would be nervous that the United States, in essence, controls the Internet. Like it or not, the Bush administration has chosen to act alone over and over again, in both war and peace. The decision to essentially go it alone in the Iraq War is but one sign of this attitude. Now the decision to retain what is essentially dominance of the DNS root servers is another. As long as that control remains, governments and citizens around the world can't be sure that US foreign or domestic policy won't affect the Internet.

Sound ludicrous? Think that the US government wouldn't interfere with ICANN's work? Keep in mind that ICANN approved the creation of a ".xxx" TLD in June 2005; by August, after receiving complaints from religious conservatives, the Bush administration was expressing its displeasure at the new TLD and leaned on the DoC and ICANN in an effort to place it on hold. Such an action cannot play well with other countries, even those that are themselves opposed to the creation of an .xxx TLD.

So what if the US flat-out says "Nope. DNS is ours, and we're keeping it."? What then? That's the big unknown. It's possible, though exceedingly unlikely, that the countries pushing for a change will grit their teeth, stamp their feet, kick and scream, and end up doing nothing. The status quo will continue, and the US will retain control of DNS. This is highly doubtful. The US is perceived around much of the world as an arrogant bully, and many countries are looking for a chance to take it down a peg. Couple that with the constantly increasing importance of the Net to economic life, and I can't see the US winning this.

The worst case scenario: a fragmented Internet. DNS server admins around the globe point to ICANN's root servers because they want to, not because they have to. If another set of DNS root servers appeared, and enough admins decided to use them instead, we'd find ourselves in one mell of a hess, as my Mom sometimes says.

If ICANN isn't overseeing IP addressing and DNS, then who will? The nations pushing for change want to create, or rely on, an "Inter-Governmental Council for global public policy and oversight of Internet governance". Many think that the UN's International Telecommunications Union (ITU) will be the body that takes on that role. The notion of UN control over the world's IP addressing and DNS isn't exactly reassuring, not least because such a UN Council wouldn't include anyone from the private sector in the decision-making process. But there are actually much more worrisome reasons than that.

It's bad enough now that Google Earth describes Taiwan as "a province of China". It's outrageous and unconscionable that Yahoo! betrayed a Chinese journalist to the Chinese authorities, resulting in a 10-year sentence in jail for the hapless reporter. And don't forget that China doesn't allow its citizens to access many common web sites, including The Learning Channel, Amnesty International USA, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or NPR.

Of course, China isn't the only offender. The September 2005 issue of Wired (pages 46-47) profiled several countries and the sites they block from their citizens, including the following:

The examples in the last three paragraphs may seem unrelated, but they all sing the same song: world politics being the contentious mess that it is, and many countries possessing autocratic (or worse) governments bent on controlling what their citizens see, read, and think. The specter of DNS control moving to a UN-controlled or international body should give us all pause. Do you really want China having an important say in what domains are allowed on the Net? Should Saudi Arabia be able to decree that all quote-unquote adult sites (whatever the heck that means) must use an .xxx TLD ... or not even be allowed on the Web at all? Do you like the idea of being forced to work with a company sanctioned by Uzbekistan to renew your .com when it's up for renewal? Do you trust Iran - which currently blocks over 10,000 so-called "immoral" web sites and has repeatedly jailed journalists and bloggers - to respect the idea of free speech on the Net? Milton Mueller provides an excellent summary of what we've seen happen, actions that undoubtedly will continue into the future:

As we have learned from the past two years, most governments have little interest in solving the real problems of the Internet. They prefer to play political games: asserting "national sovereignty" over a global communication medium, censoring inconvenient sources of information, thinking of ways to protect national telecom monopolies from internet-driven competition, grabbing control of country names in the domain name space, excluding Taiwan, and so on.

Now we find ourselves in a real pickle. Bad decisions and arrogance on the part of the US are coming back to haunt us. If America had lived up to its original agreement to give ICANN independence, or had tried to work out an international compromise when countries began to complain about US dominance of the Net, we could have averted a damaging showdown. Either choice would have been better than where we find ourselves now, when the options have been reduced to "the US controls the Internet!" and "the UN - which means who knows what countries - controls the Internet!" My recommendation? Pay close attention to what happens in Tunisia on 16-18 November ... and remember that willful isolation can turn even an island paradise into a kind of living hell.


Scott Granneman teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, consults for WebSanity, and writes for SecurityFocus and Linux Magazine. His latest book, Linux Phrasebook, is in stores now.
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ICANN on center stage 2005-10-14
Fábio Emilio Costa
ICANN on center stage 2005-10-14
Matt Bowler
ICANN on center stage 2005-10-17
Theuns
ICANN on center stage 2005-10-17
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Re: ICANN on center stage 2005-10-19
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ICANN on center stage 2005-10-18
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Re: ICANN on center stage 2005-10-18
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ICANN on center stage 2005-10-18
Anonymous
I'm missing something here... 2005-10-20
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ICANN on center stage 2005-10-21
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