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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.