Kenneth Neil Cukier. Foreign Affairs. Volume 84, Issue 6. November/December 2005.
Washington Battles the World
As historic documents go, the statement issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce on June 30 was low-key even by American standards of informality. No flowery language, no fountain-penned signatures, no Great Seal of the United States—only 331 words on a single page. But the simplicity of the presentation belied the importance of the content, which was Washington’s attempt to settle a crucial problem of twenty-first-century global governance: Who controls the Internet?
Any network requires some centralized control in order to function. The global phone system, for example, is administered by the world’s oldest international treaty organization, the International Telecommunication Union, founded in 1865 and now a part of the UN family. The Internet is different. It is coordinated by a private-sector nonprofit organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which was set up by the United States in 1998 to take over the activities performed for 30 years, amazingly, by a single ponytailed professor in California.
The controversy over who controls the Internet has simmered in insular technology-policy circles for years and more recently has crept into formal diplomatic talks. Many governments feel that, like the phone network, the Internet should be administered under a multilateral treaty. ICANN, in their view, is an instrument of American hegemony over cyberspace: its private-sector approach favors the United States, Washington retains oversight authority, and its Governmental Advisory Committee, composed of delegates from other nations, has no real powers.
This discontent finally boiled over at the UN’s World Summit on the Information Society, the first phase of which was held in Geneva in December 2003 (the second phase is set for November in Tunis). Brazil and South Africa have criticized the current arrangement, and China has called for the creation of a new international treaty organization. France wants an intergovernmental approach, but one fundamentally based on democratic values. Cuba and Syria have taken advantage of the controversy to poke a finger in Washington’s eye, and even Zimbabwe’s tyrant, Robert Mugabe, has weighed in, calling the existing system of Internet governance a form of neocolonialism.
How did such a welcomed technology become the source of such discord? Everyone understands that the Internet is crucial for the functioning of modern economies, societies, and even governments, and everyone has an interest in seeing that it is secure and reliable. But at the same time, many governments are bothered that such a vital resource exists outside their control and, even worse, that it is under the thumb of an already dominant United States. Washington’s answer to these concerns—the Commerce Department’s four terse paragraphs, released at the end of June, announcing that the United States plans to retain control of the Internet indefinitely—was intended as a sort of Monroe Doctrine for our times. It was received abroad with just the anger one would expect, setting the stage for further controversy.
Masters of Their Domain Names
One of the most cherished myths of cyberspace is that the Internet is totally decentralized and inherently uncontrollable. Like all myths, this one is based on a bit of truth and a heavy dose of wishful thinking. It is true that compared with the century-old telephone system, the Internet is a paragon of deregulation and decentralization. In four critical areas, however, it requires oversight and coordination in order to operate smoothly. Together, these areas constitute the “domain name system” of addresses, with which users navigate the Internet and send e-mail.
First, there are domain names, such as www.foreignaffairs.org. Somebody must decide who will operate the database of generic names ending with suffixes such as “.com,” “.net,” “.info,” and others (a privilege that promises handsome profits). Also, someone must appoint the operators of two-letter country-code suffixes (such as “.cn,” for China).
Second, there are Internet Protocol numbers, the up-to-12-digit codes, invisible to users, that every machine on the network needs to have in order to be recognized by other machines. Due to a technical decision made when the network was developing in the late 1970s—in a world speckled with mainframe computers—the system was set up to accommodate only around four billion potential Internet Protocol numbers, far fewer than are now necessary. Until the Internet is upgraded, accordingly, Internet Protocol numbers must be allocated sparingly—and carefully, since accidentally duplicating them creates mayhem for routing Internet traffic.
Third are what are called root servers. Some form of control is needed in the actual machines that make the domain name system work. When users visit Web sites or send e-mail, big computers known as root servers match the domain names with their corresponding Internet Protocol numbers in a matter of milliseconds. The database is the world’s most important Rolodex. Yet due to a technical hiccup that occurred when the network was young, there can be only 13 root servers, some of which provide data to mirror sites around the world. As a result, somebody must decide who will operate the root servers and where those operators will be based. Because the system evolved informally, the root servers’ administrators are diverse, including NASA, a Dutch nonprofit organization, universities, the U.S. military, and private companies. Today, all told, ten root servers are operated from the United States and one each from Amsterdam, Stockholm, and Tokyo.
Fourth and finally, there are technical standards that must be formally established and coordinated to ensure the Internet’s interoperability. They entail more than just the addressing system and involve everything from how routers send traffic to parameters so that video flows smoothly. Ultimately, the standards let the Internet evolve.
If all this sounds outrageously technical, that is because it is. And it is the reason why, even after the Internet had become a mass-market medium, most diplomats and foreign policy experts remained largely unaware of these issues. But although the management of the names, numbers, root servers, and standards that constitute the Internet’s infrastructure—what techies call “Internet governance”—seems nerdy, it can have an important impact on mainstream policy issues. For instance, countries that place restrictions on the types of domain names that can be used effectively hamper free speech. The personal information of registrants of addresses with generic suffixes such as “.com” and “.net” are made publicly available online, which jeopardizes people’s privacy. Telecom operators need access to Internet Protocol numbers to deploy services, making them a major asset for companies and an economic interest of countries. Technical standards can be designed either to foster openness or to permit censorship and surveillance. In short, the Internet, before it is physically constructed from routers and cables, is made up of values. And the domain name system is the central chokepoint where control of the Internet can be exercised.
For most of its history, the Internet has been administered by Woodstock-era American engineers and academics. As a result, the network has embodied the philosophy of that community: a political and economic liberalism led to openness on a technical level. The open infrastructure (with nonproprietary standards that let any network connect to any other, hence the “inter-net”) has fostered free expression, low-cost access, and innovation. Its private-sector origins (despite initial federal funding) have made the Internet nonbureaucratic, particularly compared with state-run monopoly telecom carriers. And the fact that the Internet’s networks carry streams of data rather than mainly voice calls has kept it outside of the purview of traditional telecom regulators.
To be sure, the Internet’s openness begets big headaches: it is difficult to track spammers, and the system is tremendously vulnerable to hacking. But the open network is like the open society—crime thrives, but so does creativity. We take for granted that the Internet we enjoy today will continue to have these characteristics, but this is hardly certain. It all depends on who controls the domain name system and what priorities they choose to set.
The Tangled Web They Wove
Until 1998, the Internet was overseen almost exclusively by one man: Jon Postel, a computer science professor at the University of Southern California. As a graduate student in the 1960s, he was among the handful of engineers who built the Internet. For the next 30 years, he managed it on behalf of the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, which funded the Internet’s initial development.
Postel made seemingly technical decisions such as who should get to operate a country-code domain. Although it may seem odd that national address suffixes (such as “.uk,” for the United Kingdom) were allocated to private individuals rather than government bodies, such was the case. In its early days, the Internet was so new and strange that there was usually no appropriate national organization to hand a suffix to. Besides, governments, and particularly their monopoly telecom carriers, more often hindered communications development than helped it. By the mid-1990s, however, it became clear to the small coterie of officials in the United States and elsewhere who were aware of the matter that the Internet could no longer be administered by a single individual. But who or what would replace him?
After a bitter series of negotiations among the business community, governments, and nongovernmental organizations worldwide, the Clinton administration helped broker a compromise and established ICANN in 1998. Because the United States’ hands-off approach had allowed the Internet to flourish, it seemed appropriate that the new organization be based in the private sector. This would make it more responsive, more flexible, and less prone to bureaucratic and political squabbling. The negotiations were so tense that Postel suffered a heart attack as they were ending and never lived to see the birth of the successor organization he was instrumental in creating.
ICANN was an experiment, a bottom-up, multi-stakeholder approach toward managing a global resource on a nongovernmental basis. Indeed, in its early days it was often touted as a model for other issues that require the unified action of numerous groups from government, industry, and civil society, such as treating communicable diseases or handling climate change. ICANN’s private-sector status, moreover, has helped keep the Internet free from political interference. When in 2002 members of the Federal Communications Commission were asked by their counterparts at China’s Ministry of Information Industry why Taiwan had been allocated its own two-letter domain (“.tw”), the commissioners could pass the buck to ICANN and breathe a sigh of relief.
Yet from the start, ICANN was plagued by controversy. Critics charged that it lacked transparency, accountability, and legitimacy. Civil-society groups felt it was in the pocket of the domain name registration businesses it was designed to regulate. Businesses felt it was overly governmental. And foreign governments felt powerless before it. As many developing countries woke to the Internet’s importance, it struck them as outrageous that the Internet was essentially run by a nonprofit corporation whose 15-person board of directors was accountable to the attorney general of the state of California and under the authority of the U.S. government. Even the U.S. Congress criticized it, hauling the group into tense hearings regularly. Half a decade after it was founded with such optimism, the organization was mockingly referred to in tech-policy circles as “ICANN’T.”
All this came to a head in 2003, during the preparatory meetings for the World Summit on the Information Society. Washington had been able to deflect criticism of ICANN in bilateral discussions but proved unable to block the momentum for change at the multilateral level. Telecom-policy officials mildly supportive of ICANN were replaced by senior representatives from foreign ministries, officials less familiar with the details of Internet governance but more experienced in challenging U.S. power. Watching the United States go to war in Iraq despite global opposition, these diplomats saw ICANN as yet another example of American unilateralism. What would prevent Washington, they argued, from one day choosing, say, to knock Iran off the Internet by simply deleting its two-letter moniker, “.ir,” from the domain name system? Surely the Internet ought to be managed by the international community rather than a single nation.
Governments worldwide sought to dilute the United States’ control by calling for a new arrangement, and in November 2004 UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed a 40-person working group to address questions of Internet governance. Washington had planned to grant ICANN autonomy from its oversight in 2006. But the more other countries clamored for power, the more the United States reconsidered its policy of relinquishing control. Ultimately, it came down to national interest: Washington, with so much at stake in the Internet’s continuing to function as it had, decided it was not prepared to risk any changes. So, as the UN working group was preparing to release its report (which, unsurprisingly, favored transferring authority over the Internet to the UN), the U.S. government made a preemptive strike. In the brief Commerce Department statement, Washington announced its decision: the United States would retain its authority over ICANN, period.
The Open Network and Its Enemies
Power, before it comes from arms or wealth, emanates from ideas. The Internet has emerged as a piece of critical information infrastructure for every nation. Developed countries increasingly rely on it for their economic livelihood and basic communications; developing nations recognize it as a way of linking people together, enabling commercial relationships, and generating the transparency and civic dialogue that undergird democratic governance. Information technology can also strengthen the hand of authoritarian regimes, but there seems little doubt that in its current form the Internet’s general influence is progressive rather than regressive.
ICANN cannot take credit for any of this, but the group’s work has ensured that the network operates smoothly so that these benefits can be realized. As the overseer of the domain name system, the United States has taken a liberal approach in keeping with its liberal values. There is no guarantee that an intergovernmental system would continue on such a course, and so even committed internationalists ought to be wary of changing how the system is run.
This is especially so since the very countries that most restrict the Internet within their borders are the ones calling loudest for greater control. As other countries sharpen their diplomatic knives for the final round of the summit in Tunis in November, the dispute is echoing an earlier battle at UNESCO in the 1980s over the so-called New World Information and Communication Order, which led the United States and the United Kingdom to pull out of the organization. Then, it was the Soviet Union, its satellites, and the developing world that called for controlling media activities and funding the development of media resources in developing countries; today, some of those same nations seek power over the Internet, as well as financial aid to overcome the digital divide.
Washington’s new position shrewdly mixes a few carrots in along with the big stick. It formally acknowledges that countries have “sovereignty concerns” about their national two-letter address domains—a mealy-mouthed nod toward granting countries control over them, which is only appropriate. Although this will invite problems, such as with Taiwan’s “.tw,” these can be sidestepped—just as the allocation of telephone “country codes” to territories does not confer diplomatic recognition, neither does the allocation of country domains need to. Washington also supports the continued discussion of broader Internet governance issues in multiple forums, which could restrain the creation of a cumbersome and monolithic Global Internet Policy Council (which was among the UN working group’s proposals). It may also keep politicians from trespassing on ICANN’s more purely technical areas, which could harm the network.
Nevertheless, although the new U.S. position may be the least bad alternative in the short term, it will almost certainly be unsustainable over the longer term. For the moment, there is little other governments can do to rebel. Unless they feel their concerns are being addressed, however, they are likely to try to set up a parallel naming and addressing system to compete with ICANN-sanctioned domains. Technology abhors homogeneity; differing technical standards are the norm rather than the exception. The ongoing scuffle over the creation of Galileo, Europe’s challenge to Washington’s Global Positioning System, is one example; the battle over third-generation mobile-phone standards is another. The danger, however, is that two different addressing systems on the Internet may not interoperate perfectly. If it wants to preserve and extend the benefits the Internet currently brings, Washington will have to come up with some way of sharing control with other countries without jeopardizing the network’s stability or discouraging free speech and technical innovation.
Ultimately, what is playing out is a clash of perspectives. The U.S. government saw the creation of ICANN as the voluntary relinquishing of a critical source of power in the digital age; others saw it as a clever way for Washington to maintain its hegemony by placing Internet governance in the U.S. private sector. Foreign critics think a shift to multilateral intergovernmental control would mark a step toward enlightened global democracy; Washington thinks it would constitute a step back in time, toward state-regulated telecommunications. Whether and how these perspectives are bridged will determine the future of a global resource that nearly all of us have come to take for granted.