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The Battle for Control of the Internet

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the California-based non-profit corporation charged with administering the Internet’s domain name system, meets this week in Luxembourg. As usual, only a relatively small group of government officials and people connected to domain name businesses will pay close attention to what transpires.

That is a mistake. Countries around the world have become engaged in an increasingly tense battle over “Internet governance” (a reference to ICANN-related issues). The battle has quietly simmered for a couple of years, but appears headed for a showdown over the next six months, with Canada home to its culmination at the last ICANN meeting of 2005 in Vancouver.

The general lack of attention accorded to ICANN and Internet governance is due in part to general misconceptions about the issue. For some, the term Internet governance conjures up images of new Internet laws and regulations, yet ICANN is not a law-making entity.

Others envision Internet governance as little more than the technical management of the domain name system with no meaningful role for individuals. This perspective posits that the public has little reason to concern itself with technical issues as long as their email arrives at the appropriate inbox and websites can be accessed as expected.

The reality actually lies somewhere between these two extremes. Policies involving the technical management of the Internet do have a regulatory effect on issues that concern the public.

For example, domain name dispute resolution policies have implications for free speech on the Internet.

Similarly, policies on access to registrant information contained in domain name registration databases raise serious privacy issues, while decisions to establish new domain name extensions, such as the just-approved dot-xxx, raise the prospect for new Internet regulation.

Though most were slow to realize it, national governments also have a significant interest in Internet governance issues, particularly with respect to their national country-code domains (such as the dot-ca in Canada).

As governments have gradually sought to influence Internet governance matters, many have felt stymied by ICANN and its associated processes, which has led to more policy twists and turns than a Desperate Housewives episode.

The U.S. government established ICANN in the late 1990s with the commitment that U.S. control over the “root servers” that lie at the heart of the domain name system would be phased out. Years later, ICANN has failed to meet expectations.

Promises to incorporate widespread public participation have been largely ignored, while the U.S. government has repeatedly determined that ICANN did not achieve the necessary milestones for the handover of root servers.

Responding to the growing national government dissatisfaction with ICANN, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a Geneva-based United Nations agency, stepped to the fore by positioning itself to play a role in Internet governance.

This was one of the factors that led to the establishment of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which brought together thousands of delegates in Geneva in 2003, with a follow-up summit planned for Tunisia later this year.

The net result of these developments is that the Internet governance issue now pits ICANN (strongly supported by the United States and to a lesser degree by several other countries including Canada) against the ITU (supported by the developing world with some European backing).

The ITU side is expected to set out a new vision for Internet governance later this month with the release on July 18 of a proposal developed by the WSIS’s Working Group on Internet Governance.

Some observers expect that the report will call for international control over the domain name root servers as well as insist upon an express acknowledgement of national sovereignty over country-code domain names.

In a surprise move, however, the U.S. pre-empted that report with a policy statement of its own just prior to the July holiday weekend. U.S. officials reversed their longstanding position by indicating that they no longer intend to transfer control over the root servers to ICANN, but rather to maintain their “historic role in authorizing changes to the authoritative root zone file.”

The U.S. did, however, open the door to discussion on country-code domains, by acknowledging governments’ “legitimate interest” in their national domains.

The U.S. statement creates a high stakes stand-off with the future of the Internet’s domain name system hanging in the balance.

One possible outcome is that national governments negotiate with the U.S. for control of their national domains. That might lead to a “carving out” of country-code domains from the ICANN mandate, while maintaining the status quo for other Internet governance matters.

A more disturbing scenario, however, is that governments determine that country-code sovereignty is insufficient without internationalized control over the root server.

Should that occur (and the U.S. sticks to its stated policy), the governments could decide to create an alternate root — i.e. an alternate Internet — leading to potential chaos in which everyone suffers from greater uncertainty and jeopardized interoperability.

Further, Canada finds itself in a particularly difficult position on this issue. By strange coincidence, the Canadian government issued a call for comments on the Internet governance issue on the same day that the U.S. government released its revised policy.

Canada has been a staunch ICANN supporter in the past, but the U.S. decision to maintain indefinite control over the root server may force officials to re-examine their position or perhaps work to identify a compromise position acceptable to both sides.

Internet governance is a thorny issue made more complicated by the dizzying array of meetings and policy documents. Stripped to the core, however, the issue is now simply about control — control over core functions of the Internet and control over the policy making levers that impact Internet free speech, privacy, and e-commerce.

With so much at stake, it’s time the public starts paying attention.

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