Those of us who knew better enjoyed a good laugh back in 2004 when, during the second Presidential debate George W., in what was then considered simply yet another of his all-too-frequently-coined neologisms, spoke about draft rumors that were then making their way around a certain computer network that he referred to as the “Internets.” The remark sparked at the time all the to-be-expected mocking, derisive comments, and if you happen to be of a certain vaguely web-savvy subset of liberal urban hipsters, you’ve likely since taken up the phrase yourself, further ensuring that most everyone within hearing distance loathes and pities you.
This, though, is not important. What is important, is that we were wrong. Oh, it seemed like just a laughable gaffe at the time, but what we didn’t realize, what many of us still refuse to recognize, is that, far from being just a widely maligned lame duck sporting a 30-some percent approval rating, Bush fils is, has always been, a seer of sorts. His father once famously lamented his trouble with, as he put it, “the vision thing.” Not so with the son. We have, once again, misunderestimated him. The Internet, as he tried to tell us on that fateful night of a year ago, is on its way out. The Internets are the new, new thing.
That, anyway, would seem to be the worst case scenario.
The International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — ICANN — has been a pretty reliable target for criticism since its founding in 1998. As the entity responsible for administrating the Internet’s Domain Name System (the system responsible for matching and translating site names to IP addresses) the organization has, for much of its existence, been battling/accommodating/ignoring the various critics who have demanded from the group, among other things, better accountability, more transparency and a steady stream of reassurances (however hollow they might sound) that it has no interest in expanding its current purview, whatsoever. Whatsoever.
Recently, though, ICANN has run up against a more existential question — that is: should it even be in charge of the DNS at all? For while ICANN is a nominally independent non-profit with a number of international board members, under its current arrangement, DNS changes must first pass muster with the US Department of Commerce — in a sense making the enterprise a fundamentally American-run affair. A Memorandum of Understanding between ICANN and the Department of Commerce held that this arrangement would end in November of 2006, with the government cutting the organization free. Unsurprisingly to anyone who has followed the current administration, though, Commerce reneged on the deal this June, with Assistant Secretary of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Michael Gallagher announcing that the government would, “maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file.”
Which presents something of a problem. Because, while it may be true that, as Gallagher noted, the Internet’s growing importance makes its stability and security more vital than ever, that same growing importance understandably enough makes other countries more and more reluctant to leave the system’s administration in American hands. They don’t much trust us. And, despite our rather decent track record at least so far as the Internet is concerned, it’s hard to blame them. It quite simply isn’t the sort of thing that a nation is supposed to do — rely on another country to administrate what’s become an increasingly crucial bit of state infrastructure.
And so, other countries have begun to discuss alternatives. People have, of course, long talked of handing off ICANN’s duties to someone else, but with Gallagher’s re-statement this summer of Commerce’s primacy, the idea of a new DNS administration has gained a certain amount of traction. In particular, this September the European Union, traditionally a supporter of ICANN, joined a number of other countries in calling for the creation of a new international body to administer the Internet.