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11/11/05

International Control vs US Control of the Internet Debate

So, Larry Lessig , law professor at Stanford, in his interview in Foreign Policy thinks the EU distrusts the US and that is why the EU is recommending an independent body to oversee the root functions of the internet.

Well, with the greatest respect for Prof. Lessig, and there is indeed much to respect him for, he is wrong on this one. The reason the EU, and the rest of the world for that matter, wants control of the root to be taken out of US hands and into that of a third international body is simple: the US position, that control of the root server system should remain in the hands of ICANN, is simply politically not defensible.

Here's why.

To begin at the beginning, one must understand that the internet is not entirely decentralised. At its apex is a server, the A-root server , sometimes called the "Number 13 server , " because there are 12 other similar root servers, and this server is under the control of ICANN.

The A-root server works from data sent it by a " hidden server, " so called because it is hidden from hackers. This hidden server then feeds" the other 12 servers, as it were, keeping all of the information on all 12 servers synchronized. And it is this server that is at the core of the dispute: who gets to decide what goes on and what goes off? Currently, it is ICANN, a California company operating under the authority of the US Department of Commerce.

Now to be fair, ICANN is doing an excellent job technically. No one seriously disputes that. It even has an international corp of officers and managers. But the politically indefensible question is this: What happens should there be a war between, say, Iraq and the USA? This hypothetical case turned real with Iraq. The TLD (top level domain) name .IQ, representing Iraq based websites, disappeared from cyberspace. And it disappeared because the owners of the domain name, who were based not in Iraq but in Texas, were jailed for unauthorized sale of computer parts and for aiding terrorists. A coincidence? (editor comment: maybe bush attacked Iraq because the tld was .IQ and he has such a low one.)

Now, if ever there was a case that put governments on edge, that was one. Many countries were looking at how the USA would handle the issue of a dispute. this case demonstrated that the US could make any nation virtually "disappear" from the Internet altogether, and if governments were not concerned with internet governance up to that point , this case brought it to life . It is not surprising, therefore, that there were initially two positions: the US position of status quo, and the Brazil-China-India position to let the UN run it. It would be too crass for any government to say that it would run the hidden server.

The US, however, distrusts the UN even more than the EU distrusts the US. Into this impasse, the EU inserted itself. Now, it should be noted that this is a strange insertion. The EU presidency rotates once every six months. At the time when the proposals were floated, the presidency was with the UK. Of all the governments in the world, who is the friendliest to the US? It is the UK. So in fact, at the PrepCom3 meeting that concluded last October, it seemed as if the US position would prevail. But the US position is simply indefensible. No government can agree that it would put the internet, on which critical infrastructure is now being built, in the hands of the US and only the US. If anyone needed convincing, the treatment of .IQ is enough. The difference between the EU and the Brazil-China-India position is this: the EU takes it out of the UN.

The US position is just not defensible. In my lectures across the US earlier in October, I did not encounter a single person who could support the US position, especially against the backdrop of .IQ. Officially, the .IQ TLD was in limbo because, supposedly, since the owner was in jail, there was no one to hand it over to. Well, within days of the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) report being published, the report that made the recommendation that the UN take control of the A-server, the .IQ TLD was handed back to the interim Iraqi government. Another coincidence? It's beginning to feel like the X-Files coming to life.

In my book, Ordering Chaos: Regulating the Internet, I've predicted that in general, the EU is the place to look to for guidance on internet law and policy. They are smart, they try to maintain a sense of balance of competing interests (as in here too) and they reconcile various cultural differences. I never expected the EU to come up with a position like they have. Given the compromise it offers, it looks like it could be a winning formula in Tunis.

[Author: Ang Peng Hwa is the Dean of the School of Communication and Information and Director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He was also appointed by Kofi Annan as a member of the Working
Group on Internet Governance, which issued a report recently calling for a change in the global system of Internet Governance.]

3 Comments:

Blogger Mojotek said...

Interesting post, and the author makes some very interesting points. Although, if you look at the shear ratio of internet infrastructure/traffic in the U.S. compared to the rest of the globe, the U.S. is by far the largest market share. Switching control to some other aggregation of national interests just seems like trying to fix something that isn't broken yet.

I know he wrote about the '.IQ domain issue', and it may be more than coincidence, but without any proof it seems that basing a whole argument on it is pretty fool-heardy.

Thanks for posting the info though! I enjoyed reading it.

5:59 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

Hi, i am glad to note that you found this article by Ang Peng Hwa interesting enough to post. As a matter of courtesy,though, I would appreciate it if you could provide a link back to the original blog on which it was posted. http://internetinasia.typepad.com/blog/2005/11/internet_govern_1.html

Thanks!

9:01 PM  
Blogger kidsearch said...

Actually, that isn't where I got the article and the name wasn't associated with it.

I'm a member of the GNSO and as such get my information from the mailing list.

Thats where I read the article. You gave credit where credit is due though and I'm happy for that.

Maybe I'll just link the blog you just showed me, but first I'll have to read some more of what is on it.

Thanks for the heads up.

3:39 PM  

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