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.
Which brings us back to October 2004 and GW’s idea of the Internets. Because, were the EU and friends, unwilling to accept the status quo, to go off and build their own network, with their own administrator, and their own DNS, the Internets is pretty much what we’d get. Two separate networks, not speaking to each other — a crippling blow aimed right at the point of it all.
To be perfectly honest, it’s not a particularly likely scenario. There’s too much at stake; the medium has become too fundamental to simply be cleaved in half. As with Solomon, sooner or later someone will probably blink. Then again, this sort of thing has happened before — most recently with the U.S.-controlled Global Positioning Satellite. While GPS was used worldwide, the US always maintained the right to control the system for its own purposes during a global conflict. Unhappy with this arrangement, Europe launched its own GPS system — Galileo. And, it’s worth noting, already a group called the Open Root Server Network is installing root servers across Europe.
In any case, it’s likely to remain a hell of a thorny issue. Convinced of ICANN’s eternal American-ness, the rest of the world has suggested vesting authority for the DNS with a UN agency like the International Telecommunication Union. This sounds fine until you remember that this same agency once rejected the notion of the Internet, arguing instead for an easier-to-control system favoring state-run telecom monopolies. There’s also the concern that for some of the countries most loudly demanding control (China and Iran, for example), the issue is less about getting the Internet out from under the United States’ thumb than keeping their citizenry under theirs.
And then there’s this argument, which Esther Dyson, founding chair of ICANN, put forth in an email posted online this October, that one of ICANN’s most useful traits is its very illegitimacy. The organization’s authority comes basically from two sources: its contract with Commerce and the general agreement among domain-name registries to, in the absence of any other authority, follow ICANN’s rules. Such a tenuous grip on power, Dyson suggests, makes for an open, responsive, accountable organization. Formally ceding control of DNS to an official UN body would have essentially the opposite effect.
Which is why, on the whole, it’s probably all for the best that last week’s UN-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society found the various disputants shaking hands and grinning for the cameras as they agreed to keep the status quo. At least for the near future the DSN will remain in ICANN’s, and, by extension, the US government’s hands. As a sop to the formerly disgruntled, member states agreed to form a new advisory body — the Internet Governance Forum — which, from the looks of it, will possess roughly zero in the way of real power. In other words, we’ve managed to kick the can a little ways down the road. The attendees might have expressed delight at their deal, but more likely than not, those smiles were coming from between clenched teeth.
The status quo has worked well up to this point; it will likely continue to work well over the next few years; and from a purely practical standpoint, it would probably continue to work just fine for quite some time. From a more theoretical point of view, however, the situation is untenable. At the end of the day, as things now stand the US could, if it chose, disrupt the network in a way harmful to other nations (cutting off Syria’s .sy address, for example). Unlikely though such an action may be, one can’t really expect other countries to tolerate the situation. We certainly wouldn’t.
Last week, as one would only expect, Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke optimistically about the deal, saying that member states had “made a very good start for cooperation.”
He also noted, however, that the matter still remains a potentially open one.
“I cannot give you an assurance that this issue will not come up,” he said.
On the contrary, it seems almost certain that it will.