The High Stakes Battle for Control of the Internet

My weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, freely available hyperlinked version) assesses the recent round of Internet governance developments including (i) the U.S. statement which indicated 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:" (ii) the ICANN meeting this week in Luxembourg; and (iii) the release of the Working Group on Internet Governance's report (likely this week as well).

The column laments the general lack of attention accorded to ICANN and Internet governance, which I argue 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 governmental 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 column then reviews the recent developments (including the Canadian invitation to comment on the issue) and sets out several possible outcomes.  I conclude what I suppose is fairly obvious:  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 key 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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