Think Web’s virtually government free? Think again

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Think Web’s virtually government free? Think again

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which will be held next week in Geneva, promises to be one of the most interesting technology-related events in recent memory. The result of months of discussion, the meeting will attract more than 50 heads of state and 6,000 delegates who will address issues from the digital divide to Internet governance.

Internet governance questions have proved to be the most contentious during the lengthy preparations for the summit. At the global level, the domain name system is administered by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit corporation in California. While ICANN enjoys support from the United States as well as the governments of several other developed countries, including Canada, many countries worldwide have begun to voice the view that all governments should share in the administration of the domain name system. Largely absent from the Internet governance debate in the late 1990s, these countries have awoken to its importance and have sought to place the issue firmly on the global agenda.

The push for greater governmental involvement in the domain name system, however, has many critics. Reflecting the popular notion that the Internet’s remarkable growth has come largely without governmental regulation, critics of increased governmental participation in Internet governance believe the domain name system is best left to a decentralized, self-regulatory approach.

A new study I jointly conducted with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations agency, is being released today. It casts doubt on the perception that governments are not already active participants on Internet governance issues. In fact, governments commonly view their national domain names as critical public resources that must be subject to governmental oversight. Given the near-ubiquitous role of government at the national level, it should therefore come as little surprise that governments have begun to seek a similarly influential role at the international level, where policy decisions may have a direct impact on their national domains.

The study surveyed all 189 ITU member states on the role of national governments within their domestic, country-code top-level domain (ccTLD). The survey featured questions on the policies of their national domains and governmental involvement in national and international Internet governance issues.

Fifty-six countries, representing every global region as well as a broad cross-section of developed and developing countries, responded to the survey. This includes the very large, including the United States, Canada, China, Japan, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and South Korea, as well as the very small, including Seychelles, Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, Luxembourg and Cambodia.

Contrary to most expectations, the study finds virtually every government that responded to the survey either manages, retains direct control, or is contemplating formalizing its relationship with its ccTLD. This is true even for governments, such as the United States, that generally adopt a free-market approach to Internet matters.

When asked about governmental involvement with their ccTLD, 47 per cent of responding governments said they retain ultimate control over their ccTLD by either running the domain as a public entity or enacting legislation granting themselves control over its administration. A further 25 per cent have taken steps to assert ultimate authority over their national ccTLD, while 20 per cent of respondents said they were considering formalizing their relationship with their ccTLD and expected that relationship to change in the future. Only 7 per cent of governments said they had no role in their ccTLD and had no plans to alter the present situation.

While the survey reveals an increasing consensus among governments on the need to assert a proprietary interest in their national ccTLD, it also uncovers striking differences in the commercial approaches of those domains.

Domain names are typically administered by one of four types of entities at the national level:

Public institutions.

Non-profit entities.

Academic institutions and individuals.

Commercial companies.

The difference in approach often has a significant impact on both commercial and policy priorities.

Responding countries with public ccTLDs consistently ranked the public interest and the protection of intellectual property rights as top priorities, while the number of domain name registrations was viewed as the least critical priority. As the ccTLDs move toward increasing commercialization, the data suggest priorities begin to invert as the public interest and intellectual property protection diminish in importance, while the number of domain name registrations increase in priority.

This finding is supported by the fact that public ccTLDs are far more likely to include restrictions on domain name registrations that limit access to the domain to only those registrants who comply with national presence requirements. Those domains appear willing to forego larger registration numbers in favour of protecting the public interest — seemingly defined to include limitations on registrations designed to preserve the national character of a ccTLD.

With governments already actively participating in the Internet regulatory and policy process at home, they were bound to demand similar involvement internationally. The true debate at next week’s summit is therefore not whether governments should be involved in Internet governance. Rather it is how they will be involved.

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