For more than a decade there has been active resistance in some quarters to the continuing custody by the U.S. of the root domain registries of the Internet. Those directories (which control the routing of Internet traffic into and out of nations) are administered by ICANN, which in turn exists under the authority of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Today, Neelie Kroes, the strong-willed European Commission Vice-President in charge of the E.C.’s Digital Agenda, has put the question of “Internet Governance” (read: control of these registries) back into the news. Specifically, Kroes announced in a press release that the Commission will pursue a “role as honest broker in future global negotiations on Internet Governance.”
The unexpected disclosures of NSA activities by Edward Snowden presents a splendid example of U.S. government, as well as popular, indifference to world opinion. As part of its efforts to control the political damage of the embarrassing revelations, the Obama administration repeatedly stressed that only foreign nationals had been the targeted. As the breathtaking breadth of the data accessed and analyzed became clear, this rationale raised the question of how the foreign citizens - and even leaders - of U.S. allies might feel about being considered to be fair game for the NSA’s attention.
The answer to that question is that they weren’t happy. Nor, as we will see, were a group of NGOs that had no reason to think they were targeted at all.
Once upon a time, there was something new called "the Internet," and it was an unknown quantity. While some guessed what it could become, most did not. Famously, Mark Andreessen - of Mosaic, and later Netscape fame - and Tim Berners-Lee did, while Bill Gates did not. Less publicly, those that helped to create something that came to be called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers - or ICANN - did, and the standards analogue of Bill Gates - the International Telecommunications Union - or ITU - did not.
The result was that ICANN came to control a small but vital piece of the Internet, called the root directories, while the ITU, a venerable global telecommunications standards organization existing under the aegis of the United Nations, and tracing its origins to 1865, did not, although perhaps it could have laid claim to those essential elements had it appreciated their future importance at the time.
And that road not taken, as Robert Frost once said, has made all the difference.
The almost haphazard way in which the future control of the root directories of the Internet was decided has become almost the stuff of legends (one of many versions may be found here). By some lights, the ITU would have been the logical home for the directories to reside, but regardless of your favorite interpretation of the actual events, that was not to be, and the ITU lost out.
A topic I've been following for about a year now is the struggle over "Internet governance," which has translated most directly during that time period into the following question: "will the US Department of Commerce give up control of the root directories of the Internet or won't it?" The debate over that question sadly monopolized the World Summit on the Internet Society (WSIS) for most of the life of that initiative (to date), and promises to continue to do so.
That's a shame, because the WSIS initiative was founded to bring the benefits of information technology and Internet access to all of the peoples of the world. Appropriately, it's administered by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) under the auspices of the United Nations, and if you're interested you can follow what's happened (and hasn't happened) over the past year by scrolling through the news stories, comments and blog entries availalbe in this folder, or by scanning this issue of the Consortium Standards Bulletin.
As you'll see from the materials in either location, ICANN's stewardship of the root directories is up for renewal (or termination) at the end of September of this year. Comments were earlier submitted on what to do when September has run its course, and a public meeting was held two days ago on the question of whether or not to renew the ICANN Memorandum of Understanding, or to put the job out to bid.
According to The Register's Kieren McCarthy, that meeting "should go down in Internet history," as the moment in time when the U.S. government "conceded that it can no longer expect to maintain its position as the ultimate authority over the internet." But the article then goes on to say:
However, assistant commerce secretary John Kneuer, the US official in charge of such matters, also made clear that the US was still determined to keep control of the net's root zone file - at least in the medium-term.
"The historic role that we announced that we were going to preserve is fairly clearly articulated: the technical verification and authorisation of changes to the authoritative root," Kneuer explained....
For some time I have been covering the topic of Internet Governance, both in the macro (and more meaningful) sense of ensuring that both the Internet and the Web fulfill the incredible promise that they hold for the advancement of all humanity everywhere, as well as in the micro, and more political sense of who should control the root directories of the Internet - a more symbolic than substantive question of control.
My most detailed coverage can be found in the November 2005 issue of the Consortium Standards Bulletin, titled WSIS and the Governance of the Internet, which I wrote in the run up to the second plenary meeting, and closing event of the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), an ambitious initiative launched by the United Nations and administered by the ITU to to bridge the digital divide between the haves and the have-nots.
That second meeting was held in Tunis, Tunisia, and was overshadowed by the ongoing political spat over who should control the root directories of the Internet - small databases that include the two letter national identifiers that end domain names and help direct Internet traffic to the appropriate geographical target. Currently, those domains are under the control of ICANN, which is in turn empowered to administer the directories under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with National Telecommuncations and Information Administration, a branch of of the United States Department of Commerce.
That subjection of a vital, if small, element of the Internet infrastructure to the control of a single nation achieved increasing significance as the Bush administration adopted an increasingly "go it alone" attitude in the post-9/11 world, and the political brouhaha that built up over the issue after the Department of Commerce announced in the summer before the Tunis summit that it would not, as earlier promised, relinquish control of the root directories built into a resounding crescendo that opershadowed, and indeed overpowered, any real progress that might otherwise have been accomplished at Tunis.
The upshot was that the opposition caved to the U.S. on the eve of the summit, taking away as a sop the formation of a new Working Group on Internet Governance, which is now in formation, leaving control of the root directories in U.S. hands.
Now, however, another time-sensitive event is looming: the expiration of the MOU itself, opening the door for debate over whether ICANN itself should remain the indirect custodian of the root domains (the domains are actually administered by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA), or whether the contract should be turned over to another contractor (if you'd like to know the full details of how things operate, see the Feature Article from the September CSB, titled WSIS, ICANN and the Future of the Internet).
Two weeks ago, the U.S. pulled off an Internet governance coup in Tunisia. Today, ICANN's Board of Directors is meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia. In between, among other things, ICANN was hit with three new law suits relating to how it does its job. If it's not one thing, it's another.
It's been just over two weeks since the World Summit for the Information Society folded up its tents (literally) in Tunis. I've been following the WSIS process for two years, and cumulating blog entries and news items for the last six months here. I also dedicated this November's issue of the Consortium Standards Bulletin to the "compromise" that left the root zone of the Internet to the management of the U.S., and created a new Internet Governance Forum to accommodate the desires of the rest of the world to participate in decision making regarding the future use and impact of the Internet.
Now that everyone is back home, how is it going? Here are a few notes and reports from all over that give a sense of what's been happening.
19,000 people went to Tunis to figure out how to bridge the Digital Divide between the first and the third world. How could the hundreds of press representatives there have found virtually nothing about open source worth reporting?
In the run up to the Tunis Summit, someone blinked on the face-off over Internet governance. The questions is, who - the U.S.? The opposition? Or maybe both? For now, its all spin.
The future of the Internet won't be decided in Tunis in a few weeks, but who will decide the future of the Internet may be. Here's how you can tell the U.S. Ambassador what you think about that.
In an action which the White House will probably call an another example of "Old Europe" in action, the EU has broken ranks with the US over Internet governance.